More countries acting to combat antimicrobial resistance in food, ag

Technical support for low- and middle-income countries aims to build firm foundation for global effort to tackle threat of “superbugs.”

Efforts to confront the spread of antimicrobial-resistant (AMR) pathogens on farms and in food systems are gathering momentum, thanks to strong backing by governments and technical support that is boosting national capacities to respond to the problem, the U.N. Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) said Nov. 17.

Antimicrobial medicines are widely used in livestock, poultry and aquaculture operations to treat or prevent diseases, FAO said. The overuse and misuse of antimicrobial medicines for human and animal health, including routine use of growth promoters, drives the emergence and spread of disease-causing pathogens that are resistant to antibiotics and increasingly difficult to treat.

The first annual survey by FAO, the World Organization for Animal Health and the World Health Organization on progress made in establishing national AMR action plans found that more than 6.5 billion people — or more than 90% of the world's population — now live in a country that already has or is developing a national AMR action plan. Nearly all of these plans cover both human and animal health, in line with the recommended "One Health" multi-sector approach, FAO said.

Since that survey, conducted in 2016, more countries have either taken strides toward finalizing their plans or have brought the plans fully into play.

The latest country to unveil a national action plan to tackle the spread of AMR using a One Health approach is Kenya, which is one of 12 countries within Africa and Asia participating in an FAO project to build national capacities to monitor and respond to AMR risks in food and agriculture — financed by the U.K.'s Fleming Fund.

Despite progress, however, the global push to tackle AMR is still in its early stages, and there are weak points that need to be shored up, particularly in the food and agriculture sectors of low- and middle-income countries — key battlegrounds against "superbugs" that are resistant to conventional medicines, FAO also cautioned.

In particular, major gaps in data regarding where, how and to what extent antimicrobials are being used in agriculture need to be plugged, while national systems and facilities for tracking the occurrence of AMR in food systems and the surrounding environment need to be strengthened, according to the organization.

"Low- and middle-income countries are particularly vulnerable to the devastating effects of AMR — a complex problem that requires coordinated action on a number of fronts in diverse sectors, supported by solid laboratory and epidemiological and regulatory capacity," FAO assistant director-general for agriculture and consumer protection Ren Wang said.

A disproportionate burden of infectious disease with gaps in resources, rules and legislation and technical know-how and capacity can mean countries face additional challenges in addressing infectious diseases affecting livestock while also making them especially vulnerable to AMR, FAO said.

"This is where FAO, along with our partners, is leveraging our expertise and experience in assisting developing countries," Wang said. "The goal is to help them develop the tools and capacity to implement best practices in animal and crop production, reduce the need for antimicrobials in food systems, develop surveillance capacity to assess the scale of AMR and track efforts to control it and strengthen regulatory frameworks to minimize the misuse of antibiotics while simultaneously ensuring access to drugs for treating sick animals."

Progress so far

In addition to supporting countries in developing or strengthening their action plans, FAO work supported by the Fleming Fund is helping countries improve their technical capacities for monitoring the use of antimicrobials and the spread of AMR organisms in food systems.

For this effort, FAO has developed a tool known as ATLASS that allows countries to conduct a "strength test" of their national laboratories and epidemiological systems. Doing so can reveal where gaps exist that should be targeted with investment or other types of support, FAO said.

The tool already has been deployed in six of the countries supported under the FAO-Fleming Fund project; an additional four national ATLASS assessments are due to kick off in in the coming months.

Similar FAO-led work funded by the U.S. is taking place in Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam. FAO is also using its own funds to work with the aquaculture sectors in Bangladesh, China, Malaysia and the Philippines.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, FAO is working with the governments of Bolivia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador and Honduras on AMR in food and in agriculture, while in Central Asia, a three-year FAO project funded by Russia on AMR in food and agriculture has just gotten underway in six countries: Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Russia.

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