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Antimicrobial Resistance

Animal health

What is the problem?

Since the introduction of penicillin in the middle of the 20th century, antimicrobial treatments have been used not only in human medicine but in veterinary care as well. At first, they were utilized to treat sick animals and to introduce new surgical techniques, making it possible, for example, to perform caesarian sections in cattle on farms. With the intensification of farming, however, the use of antimicrobials was expanded to include disease prevention and use as growth promoters.

The use of antimicrobials in healthy animals to prevent diseases has now become common in husbandry systems where large numbers are housed under moderate to poor hygienic conditions without appropriate biosafety measures in place. Similarly, when a few members of a flock have a disease, sometimes all animals are treated to prevent its spread.

Besides such uses for treatment (therapeutic) and prevention (prophylactic uses), antimicrobials have been added -- in low dosages-- to animal feed to promote faster growth.  Although more and more countries prohibit the use of antimicrobials as growth promoters, it remains common in many parts of the world.

In the coming decades, the use of antimicrobials in animal production and health will likely rise as a result of economic expansion, a growing global population, and higher demand for animal-sourced foods. Indeed, their use in livestock is expected to double within 20 years.

It is likely that the excessive use of antimicrobials in livestock (and aquaculture) will contaminate the environment and contribute to a rise of resistant microorganisms. This poses a threat not only to human health, but also to animal health, animal welfare, and sustainable livestock production -- and this has implications for food security and people’s livelihoods.

And the more antimicrobials are misused, the less effective they are as medicines in both veterinary and human healthcare, as the misuse drives AMR to evolve and emerge in disease-causing microorganisms.

What needs to be done

In the animal health sphere, the core challenge is to reduce the excessive misuse and abuse of antimicrobials locally and globally, and to preserve antimicrobials as essential medicines for treating sick animals only.

FAO is responding to this and related challenges by:

  • Tracking and reporting on major animal disease events through our Global Early Warning System, GLEWS (link to www.glews.net) in collaboration with OIE and WHO. By sharing information on disease incidents and providing epidemiological analyses we support national and regional surveillance systems in instituting prevention measures and developing response plans.
  • Responding to disease outbreaks with rapid assistance through our Crisis Management Centre for Animal Health (CMC-AH), in collaboration with the OIE and the WHO’s Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network.  Transboundary animal diseases can spread rapidly over large geographical areas and result in large numbers of sick animals and excessive use of antimicrobials. Quick responses and fighting disease at its source cuts down on the use of antimicrobials in animals --  and is more cost effective.
  • Preventing outbreaks of diseases though awareness raising campaigns on the importance of biosafety and  improved hygiene, as well as local and global campaigns to prevent disease outbreaks through flock and herd health schemes (vaccination, improved nutrition) and risk-management and mitigation interventions.  

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