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Antimicrobial resistance 101

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

16 Nov 2016

Around 700 000 human deaths each year are estimated to be related to antimicrobial resistant (AMR) infections. Across the globe, AMR further poses a major threat to food safety and security, livelihoods, animal health and welfare, economic and agricultural development.

The intensification of agricultural production has led to an increasing use of antimicrobials – a use that is expected to increase by 67 percent by 2030.

The use of antimicrobials is important for the treatment of animal and plant diseases. The correct use of this important resource through necessary changes in practices, right policies in place, and appropriate action to fight AMR, is important for food security and for reaching FAO’s Zero Hunger target of eliminating 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.

What is AMR?

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) describes a natural phenomenon of microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi that are no longer sensitive to the effects of antimicrobial medicines, like antibiotics, that were previously effective in treating infections.

What are the dangers of antimicrobial resistance?

When used improperly, i.e. an incorrect dose, insufficient duration or wrong frequency, antimicrobials promote the development of resistant microbes.  This reduces the medicines’ efficacy, making infections and diseases untreatable, or requiring other therapies and other drugs.  Spreading AMR is considered a threat to the advances made in medicine throughout the 20th century, and it is associated with increased mortality, more severe and prolonged illnesses of human being and animals, production losses in agriculture, animal production and aquaculture, as well as reduced livelihoods and food security. AMR also increases the amount and cost of treatments and care, and reduces the health and welfare of patients and animals.

For human health:

Overprescription and frequent direct administration of antimicrobials can promote the growth of AMR pathogens (disease-causing microorganisms), making infections incurable.

For animal health – terrestrial and aquatic:

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 practices to treat animal diseases (including to prevent and control diseases that are transmitted from animals to human beings), but also as a disease prevention measure, and to increase animal growth and production. The overuse or misuse of antimicrobials, as well as their use that is not strictly necessary (for instance when used to stimulate growth), can lead to these lifesaving medicines to be less effective or even ineffective, which in turn leads to higher rates of disease, mortality, and decreases in food quality and safety. Antimicrobial residues in products of animal origin and animal wastes contaminate soil and water, further contributing to the emergence and spread of AMR.

For food safety:

AMR microorganisms in our agricultural production systems and food chains are not only a major public health challenge, but they also represent a high economic risk. Good hygiene practices in agriculture, food production, processing and distribution, are fundamental in achieving food safety, but are also key to addressing antimicrobial resistance, particularly in minimizing the transmission of antimicrobial resistance through the food chain to humans. Furthermore, foodborne illness caused by antimicrobial resistant organisms have been observed to be more severe, of longer duration and more likely to require treatment.

Where are the loopholes?

  1. The use of antimicrobials should never compensate for bad farming practices and bad management.
  2. Lack of awareness in best practices leads to excessive or inappropriate use of antimicrobial drugs, promotes the spread of AMR, and results in increased severity of diseases, prolonged illnesses, and more deaths.
  3. Limited regulations and oversight in antimicrobial production, use and sale,-including over-the-counter and internet sales – spur the production and availability of sub-standard medications. This makes antimicrobials easily accessible, which in turn incentivizes misuse and overuse
  4. There are considerable knowledge gaps in many parts of the world regarding the magnitude of antimicrobial use and resistance. This hampers the design of control strategies and the planning of effective ways to measure progress towards AMR mitigation.

What can be done?

FAO’s Action Plan focuses on four main areas of work to tackle AMR:

  1. Increasing awareness and advocacy on antimicrobial resistance and related threats;
  2. Promoting good practices in food and agriculture systems, and advocating cautious use of antimicrobials;
  3. Strengthening governance structures, i.e. policies and regulations related to antimicrobial use in food and agriculture;
  4. Developing capacity for surveillance and monitoring of antimicrobial resistance and usage in food and agriculture.

As the rise of antibiotic resistance continues to threaten global health and food safety, Juan Lubroth, FAO Chief Veterinary Officer, emphasizes the importance of education and communication in the fight against AMR.

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