Asia’s campaign against ‘superbugs’
This week, the Asia-Pacific region is joining the rest of the world in raising 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 overprescribing physicians, veterinarians and dentists, and their misuse by farmers and agronomists. The microbes these drugs are designed to fight are becoming resistant to them, a development scientists call antimicrobial resistance (AMR). The situation has become such a concern that the UN General Assembly included AMR as a priority health issue along with Ebola, noncommunicable diseases and HIV.
The implications of AMR on global political, social and economic stability cannot be overstated. This is particularly true 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 underway. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the World Organisation for Animal Health, and the World Health Organization 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 of antibiotic overuse on humans, the survey identified an urgent need for resource prioritization 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 for humans as a promoter of growth for animals. The survey also found that substantial data on antimicrobial use and AMR are 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 in implementing an integrated AMR national action plan.
Therefore, the key message of this year’s World Antibiotic Awareness Week continues to be: “Handle antibiotics with care.”
Promoting positive behavioral 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 policymakers.
Because of the growing recognition of the importance of addressing environmental issues related to AMR, a partnership with UN Environment is being formalized to strengthen a one-health approach for tackling AMR that 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 harmonize AMR and antimicrobial use 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 and the United Kingdom’s The 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, needs to be more aware and more responsible in the use of antibiotics. The outcome might not be immediately visible, but such 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 senior animal production health officer of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
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