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What is it?

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is a major global threat of increasing concern to human and animal health. It also has implications for both food safety and food security and the economic wellbeing of millions of farming households.

AMR refers to when micro-organisms – bacteria, fungi, viruses, and parasites – evolve resistance to antimicrobial substances, like antibiotics. This can occur naturally through adaption to the environment, the pace of AMR's spread is now on the uptick due to inappropriate and excessive use of antimicrobials.

Various factors are at play:

  • lack of regulation and oversight of use
  • lack of awareness in best practices that leads to excessive or inappropriate use
  • the use of antibiotics not as medicines but as growth promoters in animals
  • over-the-counter or internet sales that make antimicrobial drugs readily availability common availability of counterfeit or poor-quality antimicrobials

As a result of AMR, medicines that were once effective treatments for disease become less so – or even useless, leading to a reduced ability to  successfully treat infections, increased mortality; more severe or prolonged illnesses; production losses in agriculture; and reduced livelihoods and food security.

The health consequences and economic costs of AMR are respectively estimated at 10 million human fatalities a year and a 2 to 3.5 percent decrease in global Gross Domestic Product (GDP), amounting to US$ 100 trillion by 2050. However, the full impact remains hard to estimate.

Antimicrobials - use in agriculture

Antimicrobials play a critical role in the treatment of diseases of food producing animals (aquatic and terrestrial) and plants and help assure food safety and quality.

These medicines are used to treat animals that are already sick, or to prevent diseases from spreading further within a flock or on a farm. In addition to livestock, they are now employed in aquaculture – fish farms – in the same way. In some cases – albeit to a lesser degree – antimicrobial substances are spread on plant crops.

Additionally, antimicrobials are added in low concentrations to animal feed as a way to stimulate growth – a practice that is increasingly discouraged but still relatively common.

Estimates of the total annual global consumption of antimicrobials in agriculture vary considerably. This is due to poor controls in many countries, with only 42 nations having systems in place to collect data on the use of antimicrobials in livestock.  Estimated global antimicrobial consumption in the livestock sector current runs over 60,000 tonnes per year. With demand for animal-sourced food products projected to grow steadily over the coming decades, the use of antimicrobials will continue to rise.

Extensive and smallholder livestock production systems appear  to use relatively small amounts of antimicrobials, and most of this is therapeutic, i.e. for the treatment of infected or sick animals rather than for disease prevention or growth promotion.

The quantity of antimicrobials used for crop production is calculated to be relatively low, with estimates ranging from 0.2 to 0.4 percent of total agricultural consumption.

AMR - risks to agriculture and food security

Animal diseases can have major impacts on food production, food security and farmers' livelihoods. AMR increases those risks.  The misuse of antibiotics in agriculture contributes to the spread of AMR and undermines the effectiveness of  veterinary medicines. Making sure these treatments remain effective and available to the agriculture sector is critical.

Beyond more immediate implications for food production, food safety, and farmer's livelihoods, AMR t threatens to rollback economic and food security gains made over the past 50 years.

The risk is particularly high in countries where legislation, regulatory surveillance and monitoring systems regarding the use of antimicrobials and the prevention and control of antimicrobial resistance, are weak or inadequate.

AMU use varies between different types of production systems and based on location and local contexts.

Antimicrobial resistance - a global and multisectorial issue

Much attention justifiably focused on human exposure to AMR pathogens in hospitals and similar settings and the ramification for public health. The presence of AMR microorganisms in farming systems represents another vector – the food we eat,.

AMR micro-organisms can develop in our food chains and move between animals and humans by direct exposure, consumption, or the environment.

This makes AMR a problem that crosses sectoral boundaries and which requires a coordinated, "one health" response.

The FAO/OIE/WHO initiatives, together with public and private organizations, shares responsibility for addressing and coordinating global activities addressing AMR at the animal-human-ecosystems interface. FAO is working closely with key partners such as the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), the World Food Organisation (WHO) and others in a global response to the threat of AMR.

FAO, itself a multidisciplinary organization, brings in to play its expertise in aquatic and terrestrial animal health and production, food safety and crop production, and natural resource management, with due attention to all regulatory aspects.

A key focus area for FAO are critical information gaps. There are only a few networks that track data on drug resistance. Some countries lack laboratory facilities that can accurately identify resistant microorganisms. This impairs detection and response capabilities. Similarly, there is insufficient new research into new diagnostics to detect resistant microorganisms, and vaccines for preventing and controlling infections. 

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