Antimicrobial Resistance

What is it?

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is the ability of microorganisms to persist or grow in the presence of drugs designed to inhibit or kill them. These drugs, called antimicrobials, are used to treat infectious diseases caused by microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, viruses and protozoan parasites.

When microorganisms become resistant to antimicrobials, standard treatments are often ineffective, and in some cases, no drugs provide effective therapy. Consequently, treatments fail. This increases illness and mortality in humans, animals and plants.  For agriculture, this causes production losses, damages livelihoods and jeopardizes food security. Moreover, AMR can spread among different hosts and the environment, and antimicrobial resistant microorganisms can contaminate the food chain.

Every time we use antimicrobials in people, animals and plants, germs have a chance to acquire the ability to tolerate the treatments by becoming resistant, making the drugs less effective over time.

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

The use of antimicrobials in animal and plant production is influenced by an interplay of many factors:

  • Burden of diseases that are otherwise preventable through modification of environmental hygiene, nutrition, husbandry and other management practices;
  • Limited access to animal and plant health experts, as well as limitations in training and support for these experts;
  • The use of antimicrobials as growth and production promoters in animals;
  • Lack of regulation and oversight of the use of antimicrobial drugs;
  • Over the counter or internet sales that make antimicrobial drugs readily available;
  • Availability and use of substandard and falsified antimicrobials;
  • Lack of awareness regarding good practices, leading to excessive or inappropriate use;
  • Anthropological, sociocultural, political and economic factors that pose barriers good practices.

Antimicrobials - use in agriculture

Antimicrobials play a critical role in treating diseases of food-producing animals (aquatic and terrestrial) and plants, helping to ensure food security. These medicines are used to treat animals that are already sick or to control the spread of a disease within a flock, herd or on a farm. They are also employed in aquaculture (e.g., fish farms) for similar purposes.

In some cases, antimicrobial substances are used to treat microbial diseases of plants. Antimicrobials are also used to prophylactically to prevent diseases that are anticipated in populations of animals or plants. A common practice in the past was to add antimicrobials in low concentrations to animal feed to stimulate growth and production. This practice has been increasingly discouraged, but still occurs in some areas.

The estimates of the total annual global use of antimicrobials in agriculture vary considerably. This is due to poor controls in many countries; only 89 countries have systems in place to collect data on the use of antimicrobials in animals. Very few countries record the use of antimicrobials in plant agriculture.  With demand for animal-sourced food products projected to grow steadily over the coming decades, the demand for antimicrobial use in agriculture is also expected to rise, unless production practices are modified to reduce their need.

AMR - risks to human and animal health and welfare, agriculture and food security

The findings of the Global Research on Antimicrobial Resistance study show that drug-resistant bacterial infections contributed to almost five millions human deaths in 2019, making AMR a leading cause of death globally. If action is not taken, the rise of AMR cumulatively may result in over 3.4 trillion USD loss in the world’s annual gross domestic product (GDP) in ten short years.

AMR in food and agriculture poses risks to food systems, livelihoods and economies.  Beside their direct negative impact on animals, animal diseases can also affect significantly food production, food security and farmer livelihoods. AMR increases these risks. The use of antimicrobials 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. Additionally, drug-resistant infections in humans have also been tracked to foodborne or animal sources.

Beyond more direct implications for food production and food safety, AMR threatens the livelihoods of millions who raise animals for subsistence. It is estimated that in just ten years’ time, 24 million more people may be forced into extreme poverty as a result of AMR, many of whom are in low-income countries- increasing the number of people going hungry and suffering from malnutrition. This risk is particularly high in countries where legislation, regulatory surveillance and monitoring systems pertaining to the use of antimicrobials and the prevention of AMR are weak or inadequate.

Antimicrobial resistance - a global and multi-sectorial issue

Much media attention focuses justifiably on human exposure to AMR pathogens in hospitals and other healthcare facilities and the ramifications related to public health. However, because of the presence of antimicrobial resistant microorganisms in our farming systems, they may be also in the food we eat.  Antimicrobial-resistant microorganisms can develop in our food chain and move between animals, humans, and the environment. This makes AMR a problem that crosses sectoral boundaries.

FAO, itself a multidisciplinary organization, brings into play its expertise in aquatic and terrestrial livestock  health and production, crop production, natural resource management and food safety.  An important area for FAO’s work is to identify and address the critical information gaps on the subject. Moreover, FAO is working closely with key partners such as the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), the World Health Organization (WHO) and others in a global response to the threat of AMR.

In May 2018 the Director Generals of FAO WHO and OIE agreed to strengthen their long-standing partnership, with a strong focus on tackling AMR. These three organizations share the responsibilities for coordinating global activities and tackling AMR through a “One Health” approach, which takes into account animals, humans and ecosystems at the same time.

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