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FAO raises awareness to deadly consequences of antimicrobial resistance

November 18, 2022
antimicrobial resistance

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) occurs when bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites no longer respond to the antimicrobial agents used against them.

World Antimicrobial Awareness Week, Nov. 18-24, seeks unified action to reduce drug-resistant pathogens

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is one of the biggest threats to global health, food security and development today, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). In 2019, nearly 5 million human deaths worldwide were associated with bacterial AMR, of which 1.3 million human deaths were directly attributable to bacterial AMR.

Each year, the FAO dedicates the week of Nov. 18-24 to raising awareness of the deadly consequences of AMR. The theme of this year’s World Antimicrobial Awareness Week (WAAW) is “Preventing microbial resistance together.”

“AMR is a threat to humans, animals, plants and the environment. It affects us all,” the FAO says on its website. “That is why this year's theme calls for cross-sectoral collaboration to preserve the effectiveness of these important medicines.”

AMR occurs when bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites no longer respond to the antimicrobial agents used against them. As a result, antibiotics and other antimicrobials become ineffective and infections become difficult or impossible to treat, increasing the risk of disease spread, severe illness and death.

Antimicrobials and antibiotics have been used for both disease prevention and treatment in humans and in animals, and for improving growth rates in food-producing animals. The misuse and overuse of antimicrobials are accelerating the development and spread of AMR worldwide.

The agri-food sector is severely affected by antimicrobial-resistant microorganisms, which can lead to economic losses, a decline in livestock production, poverty, hunger and malnutrition across the globe, the FAO said. There has been a global movement in recent years to reduce antimicrobial use in livestock production, in which antimicrobials are used extensively to address gut health issues.

Dr. Richard Murphy, research director at Alltech's European Bioscience Centre in Dunboyne, Ireland, said AMR is a persistent problem challenging the industry. He spoke about AMR during a recent Ag Future podcast with Tom Martin.

“The agriculture industry has made great strides in moving toward reductions in antibiotic usage, restricting their usage even further. But when you look at the year-on-year data, even though the usage of antimicrobials and antibiotics has decreased, we tend not to see a similar decrease in the prevalence of resistance among pathogens that would have human resonance — E. coli, Salmonella, Campylobacter,” Dr. Murphy said.

As steps are taken to move toward antibiotic-free systems, producers are faced with the dilemma of controlling pathogens and AMR at the same time.

“Rather than focusing solely on antimicrobial resistance, we need to focus on the pathogens, because of the high-level prevalence of antimicrobial resistance that's present in those pathogens,” Dr. Murphy said.

Alltech’s researchers are focused on trying to understand the link between pathogen control and the control of antimicrobial resistance, he said. They are also focused on how to utilize the gut microflora to control pathogens.

“If you can expand the richness and the diversity of the gut microflora, that enables the GI tract to self-police. You tend to get what's known as colonization resistance,” he said. “You get greater resistance to pathogen colonization of the GI tract. We found in multiple studies across multiple species that we can effect changes. We can bring about increases in species richness (and) in gut microflora diversity with the use of mannan-based prebiotics — mannan-rich fraction, for instance.”

A path toward antibiotic-free production

The use of alternative products designed to regulate and support the gut environment and its microflora will assist the move to antibiotic-free production, said Dr. Jules Taylor-Pickard, director of the Alltech® Gut Health Management platform. Among those products are feed enzymes, organic minerals, yeast-cell wall derivatives such as mannan-oligosaccharides (MOS) and mannose-rich fractions (MRF), functional nutrients and probiotics.

Alltech’s Gut Health Management offers a path to antibiotic-free production that begins with its Seed, Feed, Weed program.

“Seed, Feed, Weed is just that: It’s seeding the gut with favorable organisms, it’s feeding those favorable organisms and it’s weeding out the unfavorable or the bad organisms,” Dr. Taylor-Pickard explained.

The second step is the antibiotic reduction program, through which a team of experts helps develop an action plan to assist producers with reducing antibiotic use on-farm. The goal is to significantly reduce or even make prophylactic (preventative) and metaphylaxis antibiotic use (treating an entire group without evidence of disease) redundant.

The third step helps producers with the transition to operating without antibiotics by improving gut health and utilizing holistic nutrition and management practices across all stages of production.

There is no “silver bullet” solution for reducing AMR, Dr. Murphy said. It can be quite difficult to develop programs whereby you remove antibiotics and replace them with a single compound or a single nutritional additive.

“When we think about replacement of antibiotics, we will need to take into consideration multiple factors or dimensions, such as animal management and facility hygiene; diet certainly is going to be absolutely critical, and nutritional components play a huge role in transitioning away from antibiotic use and in transitioning toward antibiotic-free production systems,” he said.

Building a more resilient agri-food system

As part of WAAW, the FAO issued calls to action for farmers, food chain workers and consumers, policymakers, animal health and agriculture professionals and others.

“The challenges of AMR are complex and multifaceted, but they are not insurmountable,” the organization said.

Among its key calls to action during WAAW, the FAO is asking agri-food systems to:

  • Implement prevention measures (biosecurity, sanitation, hygiene, etc.) to reduce the need for antimicrobials in animals and antimicrobial pesticides in plants.

  • Use diagnostic tests to assist surveillance efforts and design successful interventions to reduce AMR.

  • Use science-based evidence to identify, manage and mitigate AMR risks.

  • Improve access to expert advice, prescriptions, appropriate antimicrobials to reduce production and productivity losses, and build more resilient agri-food systems.

  • Provide a system-wide approach to keeping crops healthy, resorting to chemical pesticides only as a last resort.

The FAO is challenging policymakers to commit resources to tackle AMR and meet national AMR action plan targets. It is also asking agriculture professionals to share information on best practices for reducing the use of antimicrobials.