What is Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR)?
The rise of superbugs has become a systemic issue across the world.
Antibiotics, also referred to by the broader term antimicrobials, are drugs used for treating or preventing infections caused by bacteria and have saved countless lives. They act against bacteria by either killing them or making it difficult for them to grow and multiply. Antimicrobials is a broad term for agents that attack microorganisms, including antivirals (which act against viruses), antifungals (which act against fungus), antiparasitics (which act against parasites), and antibiotics (which act against bacteria).
In healthcare, antibiotics are given to patients to treat bacterial infections (like strep throat or urinary tract infections) or to reduce the likelihood of infections after major surgery (like joint replacements or Caesarean sections).
But misuse and overuse of these drugs has exacerbated a phenomenon known as antimicrobial resistance, or AMR (also called antibiotic resistance). Bacteria reproduce and evolve rapidly. When they are routinely exposed to non-lethal doses of antibiotics, bacteria quickly develop defenses against these medicines, making the infections they cause harder to treat and increasing the risk of disease spread, severe illness, and death.
Bacteria that are not susceptible to antibiotics are also called superbugs. Not only do they reproduce quickly, creating new generations of superbugs, but they can also transfer their genetic traits to other bacteria they encounter, sharing their drug resistance as they move through the environment or our food system. As a result, medicines become less and less effective, and infections persist in the body, increasing the risk of spreading to others.
Bacteria can become resistant to antibiotics through any exposure, and overuse of antibiotics, particularly within factory farming, has put this process into hyperdrive.
How zoonotic diseases spread
A zoonosis is an infectious disease that is transmitted from animals (farmed or wild) to humans. Zoonotic pathogens may be bacterial, viral, or parasitic. They can affect humans through direct contact with animals, food, drinking water, or insects (mosquitoes, flies, ticks, fleas) carrying the pathogens, or indirectly through the contamination of the wider environment (water, surfaces, soils). An estimated 60% of known infectious diseases and up to 75% of new or emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic in origin, many of which jump to humans from farmed animals. Recent pandemics or pandemic risks, such as swine flu or avian flu, are associated with intensive poultry and pig production systems. Zoonotic pathogens and AMR are both increasing as a direct result of the growth in industrial livestock systems and pose one of the most significant threats to human health across the globe.
Antibiotics in animal agriculture and food systems
Animals in factory farms are forced to live in overcrowded, barren and stressful conditions, and meat companies routinely dose the feed and water with antibiotics to stave off illness even if the animals are not yet actually sick. Factory farms in the US use millions of pounds of antibiotics every year to prevent diseases instead of addressing the underlying cruel conditions that put the animals at high risk of illness. Reducing crowding, providing materials that enrich the barns or pens, keeping young animals with their mothers for longer, and shifting away from the rapid growth expected from the animals are a few examples of practices that can improve the lives of animals and lower the risk of disease. In the current system, regular use of antibiotics results in drug residues and drug-resistant ‘superbugs’ contaminating our environment and food supply. The human toll from antibiotic resistance is alarming and increasing, with at least 1.27 million deaths in 2019 due to drug-resistant bacterial infections, with more than 600,000 food-borne cases of illness. In fact, in 2019 antibiotic resistance was the third leading cause of death globally. This crisis has been called the “next global pandemic,” and if actions are not taken by key stakeholders, the issue will only continue to get worse.
How you can help
The rise of superbugs has become a systemic issue across the world. At World Animal Protection we are urging companies to reevaluate their antibiotic stewardship policies and adopt strategies that put protecting animals and driving down AMR at the forefront of their goals. It’s significantly valuable for companies to only use antibiotics when necessary to treat sick animals when approved by veterinarians. Help us urge companies like Hormel to eliminate the use of antibiotics for disease prevention from their supply chains and take responsibility to stop the spread.