Antibiotic Overuse in Animals is Contributing to Another Pandemic

Antibiotic Overuse in Animals is Contributing to Another Pandemic

Antibiotics are commonly used in animals to boost their growth and keep them from picking up infections.

Their consensus was inevitable. As the 74th World Health Assembly (WHA) discussed a solution in May to contain the grave and growing threat of antimicrobial resistance (AMR), one mandate emerged: any action must take a multisectoral One Health approach to human, animal, and environmental health. 

Antibiotics are commonly used in animals – often without the input of veterinarians – to boost their growth and keep them from picking up infections. Estimates indicate that more than 70% of the antimicrobials sold globally are used in animals, and in some countries up to 80%, mostly for growth promotion. This indiscriminate antimicrobial use fuels resistance. 

Drug-resistant germs can cross over from animals to humans through direct contact with farm animals or through meat handling or consumption. Inappropriate antimicrobial use in animals is now recognized as a major contributor to drug resistance. 

Some 700,000 people already die due to antimicrobial resistance each year, and that may increase to millions per year if we don’t do more to stop inappropriate use of antibiotics. Meanwhile, rising incomes and growing urban populations throughout the world have increased the demand for meat, which means more livestock farming.

Many countries are eager to contain AMR. According to a WHA-related report, 144 countries now have a national action plan to do so. However, sectors differ in the amount of progress they’ve made. While there is general awareness and progress in the human health sector, work in the animal sector is lagging, and work in the environmental sector has only begun.

As the WHA affirmed, six years after it launched a Global Action Plan on AMR, we need collaborative, multisectoral coordination to address public health threats at the intersection of humans, animals, and the environment. It’s the only way to effectively address this widespread issue. 

The global health nonprofit I work for is supporting Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA) activities aimed at improving multisectoral coordination on AMR as part of the USAID Medicines, Technologies, and Pharmaceutical Services Program. We’ve worked in multiple countries, using WHO-recommended benchmarks to improve their capacity to detect, assess, report, and respond to public health events per International Health Regulations.

As my colleagues and I explained in a paper“Strengthening multisectoral coordination on antimicrobial resistance: a landscape analysis of efforts in 11 countries,” it’s critical to help countries establish national multisectoral task forces and ensure that they function effectively. They must include high-level governmental officials and other stakeholders from both human and animal health, along with the agricultural, environmental, and food sectors.

Multi-sectoral Collaboration Needed to Tackle AMR

In some countries, these coordinating bodies lacked adequate political support and the authority to act. Ethiopia had weak coordination among its AMR stakeholders, no monitoring and evaluation capability to measure progress, no central reporting mechanism on AMR-related activities, and no functional technical working groups in line with One Health to actually implement activities against AMR. We convened national stakeholders to address these issues and improve overall functionality of the multisectoral coordination body on AMR and its technical working groups.

Countries need enabling environments such as administrative and financial support, adequate human resources, and practical know-how on the process and parameters of how these multi sectoral bodies operate. They also need ways to gather, analyze, and monitor data.

Support pays off: with our collaboration, the human, animal, agriculture, and environmental sectors in Cameroon collaborated on a plan to execute the country’s national action plan on AMR. Bangladesh and Kenya developed multisectoral monitoring and evaluation frameworks to track their action plans.

In Uganda, the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries released its first-ever guidelines in February for antimicrobial use in animals.

Previous efforts by stakeholders to address AMR have largely been siloed. To get diverse sectors and disciplines to the table at the central level and to form mutual trust, frank discussions about why collaboration is critical, explaining the science, and finding common ground among sectors are needed.

The private sector has a stake in outcomes, too, especially as they relate to maintaining the effectiveness of medicines or protecting livestock.

Increasing drug resistance in E. coli, Salmonella, and other bacteria prompted Côte d’Ivoire to embark on an ambitious multi sectoral antimicrobial stewardship plan. Health and vet facilities began to monitor drug prescribing and  infection prevention and control procedures, while another committee looked into the sale of medicines without prescriptions and the sale of fake or substandard drugs. Greater attention to hygiene and prescribing also helped health facilities deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Every country needs the same inclusive approach. It is a big undertaking, and many lower-income countries are just beginning to achieve liftoff in implementing their national AMR plans. However, as we struggle to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, we cannot take our eyes off of the creeping global problem of AMR, which threatens to claim even more lives.

Mohan P. Joshi is a physician and senior principal technical advisor at the global health nonprofit Management Sciences for Health, where he is the technical lead for issues related to antimicrobial resistance and global health security.

Image Credits: Commons Wikimedia.