Time to step up the campaign against 'Superbugs'
This week the Asia-Pacific region is joining the rest of the world to raise awareness about the overuse and misuse of antibiotics in humans, animals and agriculture.
Antibiotics, while wonderful medicines invented to fight off infections, are becoming less effective due to over-prescribing physicians, veterinarians, dentists and their misuse by farmers and agronomists.
The result is that the microbes these drugs are designed to fight are becoming resistant to them -- something known by scientists as antimicrobial resistance (AMR). The situation has become such a concern that the UN General Assembly included AMR as a priority health issue together with Ebola, non-communicable diseases and HIV.
The global implications of AMR on political, social and economic stability cannot be overstated. This is particularly the case in Asia where by 2050, if no immediate action is taken, some five million people could die each year from bacterial infections that have become resistant to antibiotics, surpassing the projected number of annual cancer fatalities.
A global response is already under way. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), and World Health Organisation (WHO) have jointly facilitated a global AMR self-assessment survey at country level.
The survey, conducted each year, aims to better understand antimicrobial use and the level of responses to the threat of AMR in countries around the world. While there is a general understanding about the effects on humans from overuse of antibiotics, the survey identified an urgent need for resource prioritisation and more action in the animal, food and environment sectors.
Only 64 countries -- less than half of those surveyed -- have banned the use of Critically Important Antimicrobials including Bacitracin, Flavofosfolipol and Tyrosine for humans as a promoter of growth for animals. The survey also found that substantial data on antimicrobial use and AMR is missing from the environment and plant sectors. This is an emerging area of concern. While governments are increasingly engaging in addressing AMR, there is still an overall need to support countries to implement an integrated AMR national action plan.
Therefore, the key message of this year's World Antibiotic Awareness Week (WAAW) which began on Friday continues to be "handle antibiotics with care".
Promoting positive behavioural change to reduce the misuse of antibiotics remains one of the priorities in mitigating the spread of AMR. Strengthening policies, surveillance and reporting is crucial as well, as is advocacy aimed at national policy makers.
Because of the growing recognition of the importance of addressing environmental issues related to AMR, a partnership with UN Environment is being formalised to strengthen a One Health approach for tackling AMR. It responds holistically to humans, animals, plant life, soil, water and the environment.
Since September 2016, FAO has further initiated activities in the Central Asia and Asia-Pacific regions to harmonise AMR and antimicrobial use (AMU) surveillance and review AMR policies. In addition, efforts have focused on raising public awareness about AMR in the food and agriculture sector. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the United Kingdom's Fleming Fund and the Russian Federation have been actively supporting FAO AMR projects to assist countries across these regions in addressing this global threat.
Ultimately, governments need to strengthen their AMR action plans with an emphasis on awareness, governance policies, surveillance and promotion of good practices. The public, including professionals working in the animal and human healthcare sectors, need to be more aware and more responsible in their use of antibiotics.
The outcome might not be immediately visible but their actions are crucial if we are to preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics and ensure that they will continue to work in the future.
Katinka De Balogh is a senior animal production health officer, Food and Agriculture Organisation, United Nations.