Stop Careless Use of Antibiotics: Millions of Lives Depend on It

The problem with the casual use of antibiotics is they lose their effect over time as the bacteria they are meant to counter simply adapt to overcome the medicine's effect. (Reuters Photo/Jacky Naegelen)

By : Katinka de Balogh | on 4:13 PM November 14, 2017
Category : Opinion, Commentary, Editor's Choice

With this being Antibiotic Awareness Week, the main take away message is to seek expert medical advice on the responsible use of antimicrobials.

We've all seen it and many of us are guilty of it: A sick child, a sore throat, a trip to the doctor – and a prescription for an antibiotic.

The problem with such a scenario is that many antibiotics are prescribed when, most likely, the malady is caused by a virus – not a bacterial infection – and thus will have no effect, nor cure.

In livestock production and agriculture, we see a similar pattern. Rather than using antibiotics to treat bacterial illnesses, which is fine, they are too often used as a hedge, a safeguard or preventative measure to best ensure the valuable animal does not get sick in the first place.

The problem with the casual use of antibiotics is they lose their effect over time as the bacteria they are meant to counter simply adapt to overcome the medicine's effect. Antimicrobials is the wider term given to drugs used to prevent and treat parasitic, bacterial, viral and fungal infections.

While, antibiotic resistance is the ability of bacteria to survive treatment with antibiotics, antimicrobial resistance is the general term for drug resistance of microbes.

Globally, antimicrobial resistance is becoming a core political, social, and economic problem due to it being a critical public health threat. The implications could never be more real in Asia where, if no immediate action is taken, about 5 million people are projected to die annually by 2050 of conditions linked to bacterial infections that have become resistant to antibiotics. The figure will be higher than the estimated cancer fatalities.

The irrational use of antibiotics in the animal, agriculture and human health sectors plays a major role in this emerging health crisis today. The widespread dissemination of resistant bacteria or "superbugs" and genes occurs in the environment and food systems.

For example, several studies have shown that antibiotic resistant bacteria are found in drinking water supply systems in several countries in the region, which is of great concern. Indiscriminate use of antibiotics in livestock and aquaculture for treatment and growth promotion has been shown to hasten the emergence and spread of antibiotic resistant pathogens in food and the environment.

For human health, the theme of this year's Antibiotic Awareness Week means seeking advice from a qualified health care professional before using antibiotics. For animal health, the best way to reduce antibiotic use is to promote farm management aimed at preventing infection through good practices in livestock production, aquaculture farming and crop production.

While such actions contribute to reducing or preventing animal diseases, their implementation also strongly complement work on food safety, animal welfare, environmental protection as well as the promotion of climate smart practices.

Because of its complexity, antimicrobial resistance mitigation in food and agriculture cannot be addressed by a single sector or strategy, but through various disciplines working together to contribute to producing safer foods and creating a better environment for all.

There is hope in tackling antimicrobial resistance. The Global Action Plan on Antimicrobial Resistance has been developed and was endorsed by all countries to address this threat by involving various sectors, such as the agriculture, public health, environmental and other relevant sectors. During the United Nations General Assembly in 2016, political leaders endorsed in a special session on antimicrobial resistance.

The action plan sets out responsibilities for national governments, the World Health Organization (WHO), UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), as well as other national and international partners in responding to antimicrobial resistance.

The FAO, WHO and OIE have pooled resources and efforts to address antimicrobial resistance across the human, animal and ecosystem domains following the so-called "One Health Approach."

The FAO has further initiated activities in the Asia-Pacific region since September 2016 to harmonize antimicrobial resistance surveillance and review antimicrobial resistance policies. In addition, efforts have focused on raising public awareness about antimicrobial resistance in the food and agriculture sectors. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Britain's Fleming Fund have actively supported the FAO's antimicrobial resistance projects to assist countries and the region in addressing this global threat.

Governments and their citizens must take responsibility when it comes to the use of antibiotics. For instance, prescription drugs should only be taken or applied based on the advice of health professionals. This also holds true for the animal sector, where antibiotics should mainly be used to treat infection.

While antibiotic resistance might not be directly visible, we need to make sure that the antibiotics we have are used prudently and all efforts are made to reduce their use as far as possible. Once they stop working, it will be already too late.

Katinka de Balogh is senior animal production health officer for Asia and the Pacific at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

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