Antimicrobial resistance – What you need to know

Get the basics, challenges and outlooks on this global health threat

©FAO/Giulio Napolitano

An estimated 700 000 people die each year from antimicrobial resistant (AMR) infections and an untold number of sick animals may not be responding to treatment. AMR is a significant global threat to public health, food safety and security, as well as to livelihoods, animal production and economic and agricultural development.

The intensification of agricultural production has led to a rising use of antimicrobials – a use that is expected to more than double by 2030. Antimicrobials are important for the treatment of animal and plant diseases but must be used responsibly and only when needed. To stay ahead of antimicrobial resistance and keep our antimicrobials effective for as long as possible, we need to invest in good agricultural practices that prioritize infection prevention and we need to have the right policies in place to support these sustainable agricultural practices. Good nutrition and health are fundamental human rights and are vital to achieving Zero Hunger in our lifetime.

Let us take a closer look at AMR to get a better understanding of the global risks it poses for the future.

The more antimicrobials are used, the more likely microorganisms will develop resistance. Left: ©FAO/Ishara Kodikara; Right: ©Shutterstock

What is AMR?
Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) describes a natural phenomenon where microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi lose sensitivity to the effects of antimicrobial medicines, like antibiotics, that were previously effective in treating infections. Any use of antimicrobials can result in the development of AMR. The more antimicrobials are used, the more likely microorganisms will develop resistance, and the misuse and excessive use of antimicrobials speeds up this process. Examples of misuse include using an incorrect dose or administering an antimicrobial at the wrong frequency or for an insufficient or excessive duration.

What are the dangers of AMR?
AMR causes a reduction in the effectiveness of medicines, making infections and diseases difficult or impossible to treat. AMR is associated with increased mortality, prolonged illnesses in people and animals, production losses in agriculture, livestock and aquaculture. This threatens global health, livelihoods and food security. AMR also increases the cost of treatments and care.

©FAO/Vasily Maximov

How does AMR affect terrestrial and aquatic animal health?
Antimicrobials are essential for animal health, welfare and productivity and they contribute to food security, food safety and public health. Antimicrobials are used in animal production to treat animal diseases (including diseases that are transmitted from animals to humans), but also as a disease prevention measure. Antimicrobials were also routinely and extensively used to increase animal growth rates. This type of overuse and misuse of antimicrobials can speed up the rate at which AMR develops, resulting in less effective medicines and loss of treatment options. In such cases of treatment failure, rates of animal disease and deaths spike, and food safety can be compromised. Antimicrobial residues and antimicrobial resistant microorganisms in animal wastes also contaminate soil and water, further contributing to the emergence and spread of AMR.

What does AMR mean for food safety?
Good hygiene practices in agriculture, food production, processing and distribution, are required to maintain food safety and to minimize the transmission of AMR through the food chain to people. Antimicrobial resistant organisms can be more difficult and costly to treat. If antibiotics are not used appropriately, antimicrobial residues in food can also pose health hazards to consumers. AMR microorganisms in our agricultural production systems and food chain are not only a major public health challenge, but they also represent a potential threat to trade and the global economy.

What are the top 5 challenges in the fight against AMR in food and agriculture?

1. Implementing more sustainable agricultural practices that prioritize infection prevention for healthier animals and crops and a reduced need for antimicrobials. We need your help to encourage awareness and access to necessary resources to help reduce antimicrobial use in food and agriculture and to promote the responsible use of antimicrobials when they are truly needed.

2. Regulations and oversight do not exist in all countries to ensure responsible use of antimicrobials in animal and crop production. This is a problem because the use of poor quality and falsified antimicrobial products – or using the wrong antimicrobials to treat particular causes of diseases – can accelerate resistance development. Prescriptions may not be required to purchase antimicrobials. This allows the use of antimicrobials by untrained individuals when they are not needed at all. Seek education and expert advice from qualified animal health professionals. 

3. AMR organisms and antimicrobial residues are present in wastes from agricultural production, pharmaceutical manufacturing and human sewage. Inadequate treatment and improper disposal of wastes can spread antimicrobial residues and AMR microorganisms through the environment in soils and in waterways. 

4. There are considerable knowledge gaps regarding the magnitude of antimicrobial use and resistance in many parts of the world. To develop effective control strategies, there needs to be greater investment in global surveillance and research to measure progress towards AMR mitigation. 

5. Changes in antimicrobial use in agriculture alone will not be enough to combat AMR. Everyone and all sectors have a role to play in combatting AMR and this includes changes in practices in human health.

Help raise awareness about this important issue by sharing this article with your family, friends and colleagues. 

Find more information here about what FAO is doing to tackle AMR.