Scientific evidences show that inappropriate use of antibiotics in food animals can contribute to the development and emergence of antimicrobial resistance. Encouraging and incentivizing livestock farmers to adopt the ‘no antibiotics ever’ or ‘raised without antibiotics’ approach would pave the way to a better future, writes Faazil Bashir Rather.

Globally food animals are being extensively reared not only as a source of nutrition but also as a source of income. Demand for animal protein for human consumption is rising unprecedentedly and is expected to double during the first half of this century. Worldwide around 12% of the human population depends solely on livestock for their livelihood, and the sector accounts for 40% of global agricultural gross domestic product (GDP).

Antibiotics and Antimicrobial Resistance

The rapidly growing population and urbanization followed by improved economy and purchasing power, have led to increased demand for animal-based products, necessitating the uncontrolled use of antimicrobials for growth promotion among food animals. Scientific evidence demonstrates that over/ inappropriate use and misuse of antibiotics in food animals and the subsequent contamination of the environment can contribute to the development and emergence of antibiotic resistance.

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is a silent pandemic that can potentially be more deadly than COVID-19 and is reportedly the third-leading underlying cause of death worldwide. It has been predicted that the day when medicine no longer finds enough help from antibiotics may be just around the corner. World Health Organization strongly recommends a reduction in the use of all classes of medically necessary antibiotics in food animals, including complete restriction of these antibiotics for growth promotion and disease prevention without diagnosis.

Global Implications of AMR

The rise and spread of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) creates a new generation of ‘superbugs’ that cannot be treated with existing medicines. The impacts of leaving AMR unchecked are wide-ranging and extremely costly, not only in financial terms but also in terms of global health, food sustainability and security, environmental wellbeing and socio-economic development.

Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) is a global health concern that impacts all countries and all people, regardless of their wealth or status. Antibiotics are used in food animals for the same reasons they are used in humans, such as to treat and control diseases and ensure good health. When an animal exhibits clinical signs of an illness or a condition like a respiratory infection or a skin infection, a veterinarian may prescribe an antibiotic drug to treat that condition, just as a doctor would with a human who is sick.

Antibiotic use has always been associated with the development of resistance. Indeed, whenever an antibiotic is consumed, it eliminates susceptible bacterial cells, leaving behind or selecting those unusual strains that continue to grow in its presence through a Darwinian selection process. Those resistant variants then multiply, becoming the predominant bacterial population, and transmit their genetic resistance characteristics to offspring.

Balancing Animal Health and Antibiotics

Ensuring the health and wellbeing of animals raised for food is an ethical obligation and a critical component of providing safe food products. Antibiotics are essential to animal health programs, but their use has come under scrutiny because of the rise of antibiotic resistance globally. Efforts have been made to improve antibiotic stewardship in animal production systems, with different countries often adopting different approaches for enhancing the responsible use of antibiotics.

Antibiotics can also be used to prevent disease, and many times, it is easier and better for animal welfare to control total herd health through early prevention of a contagious illness. There are extensive guidelines about how antibiotics must be used to ensure safety for both people and animals. All antibiotics used to keep animals healthy have been evaluated through a rigorous approval process that shows them to be safe and effective.

How Antimicrobial Resistance Develops and Spreads.

How to Prevent or Slow Down the Emergence of Antimicrobial Resistance:

The challenges with the emergence and spread of antibiotic resistance are very complex and have multiple effects not only on animals but on humans and the environment as well. The same requires a global response. Recognizing the growing importance and impacts of AMR, a National Action Plan on Antimicrobial Resistance (NAP-AMR) has been formulated, which is a well-designed comprehensive plan that incorporates all the essential objectives of the Global Action Plan (GAP-AMR) and promises to address the important policy and regulatory issues in relation to antibiotic use according to the “One Health Approach”.

Tackling AMR in food-producing animals

Significant success in tackling AMR in food-producing animals can be achieved by responsi­ble antimicrobial usage across all livestock production sectors through collaboration between the government, vets and livestock farmers. Strengthening regulatory framework and implementation of strict legislative guidelines, imposing a special antibiotic tax while using antibiotics in food animals, banning without prescription sales of antibiotics, developing/ strengthening robust surveillance system that accounts for the use and/or consumption of antibiotics in the animal/food/livestock sector would go a long way. There is a need to strengthen infection prevention and control, promote investments in research, development and innovations, conduct capacity-building sessions for all stakeholders, and organize effective IEC campaigns and public awareness.

The livestock food production industry represents a major consumer of antibiotics, but the AMR risks within these production systems still need to be fully understood. Precision farming, cost-effective DNA sequencing and the increased adoption of machine learning technologies offer the opportunity to develop methods to better understand and quantify AMR risks in livestock farming environments. Some of the promising alternative products like, phytobiotics, immune modulators, acidifiers and enzymes can be incorporated into comprehensive herd/ flock health management programs. Encouraging the use of antimicrobial peptides, probiotics, prebiotics, and synbiotics can offer alternatives to antibiotics to be used in food animals. The use of stem cell-derived peptides, hemofiltration devices and Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR)-cas system has shown promising results in tackling AMR.

Innovative Approaches in Microbial Control

Encouraging the use of novel nano-particles/ nano-antibiotics like Zn doped CuO has a high and long-lasting microbial effect on multidrug-resistant strains of E. coli and S. aureus as well as no toxicity to human beings. The use of phage therapies, viz., Listeria phage products, as food preservatives have recently gained significant interest, revealing the true potential of this promising biological intervention technology against the emergence and dissemination of antimicrobial-resistant phenotypes as well as human and zoonotic pathogens.

The use of bacteriocins, a group ribosomal synthesized peptides or proteins, and fecal microbiota transplant therapy have attracted considerable attention in the area of antimicrobial research. Further developing alternative methods of producing animal-origin foods, like, lab-grown/ synthetic meat, etc., is one way to minimize environmental pollution and the development of superbugs and AMR genes. Lastly, encouraging and incentivizing livestock farmers to adopt the “no antibiotics ever” (NAE) or “raised without antibiotics” (RWA) approach to animal production systems would pave the way to a better future.

A Collaborative Approach to Tackling AMR

Success against AMR can only be achieved when the public, experts from diverse fields such as clinical research, microbiology, veterinary medicine, medical health, genetics and computational engineering, imaging and modelling would work in collaboration to evolve strategies and develop novel therapeutics to tackle this emerging global problem. A One Health response is vital to combat superbugs and will help save millions of lives, preserve antimicrobials for generations and secure the future from drug-resistant pathogens.

The author is a Veterinarian and Technical Officer (Poultry) at Directorate of Animal Husbandry Kashmir, Red Cross Road, Gaw Kadal Srinagar Kashmir

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