Misuse of antibiotics on farmed animals is an emerging threat to global health, warns NGO
Each November 18th to 24th, the World Health Organization (WHO) observes World Antimicrobial Awareness Week. The aim is to call attention to the serious public health threat caused by the misuse of antibiotics and other antimicrobial medicines. At least 700,000 people die each year due to drug-resistant diseases, and it is speculated that this number could increase to 10 million deaths by 2050 if no action is taken.
"Our food system is heavily dependent on animal products, and livestock is one of the most important drivers leading to antimicrobial resistance," says Fernanda Vieira, director of Food Policy of the international animal protection NGO Sinergia Animal.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 80% of the total consumption of medically important antibiotics is in the animal sector in some countries. Several WHO reports show that the high volume and frequent use of antibiotics used in animals raised for human consumption cause the emergence of "superbugs" — antibiotic-resistant bacteria that do not respond to treatment by traditional antibiotic medicines.
Factory farms, industrial facilities where millions of animals are crammed together in often close spaces, are the biggest culprits. According to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), stress due to confinement, poor sanitary conditions, and the animals' lack of genetic variation create the perfect conditions for diseases to emerge and spread. "In these systems, animals usually receive antibiotics, not to treat illnesses, but to prevent them and promote faster growth. These animals can become carriers of 'superbugs,' which then can infect humans," explains Fernanda.
How do superbugs arrive at us?
There are several ways in which superbugs can be transmitted to humans. After emerging in factory farms, they can contaminate the soil, water, air, or our food through animal excrement and other fluids.
Superbugs can even travel through the air. A study from the University of Iowa discovered an antibiotic-resistant bacteria called MRSA floating in the air two hundred meters downwind of a pig farm in the United States. In another study, conducted by The Johns Hopkins University, antibiotic-resistant bacteria were found in the air inside the scientists' car after they drove behind a truck transporting chicken with their windows down.
Factory-farm workers, communities that neighbor factory farms, and slaughterhouses are highly impacted. A study published by the Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases found that those working in pig farms are six times more likely to carry multidrug-resistant and methicillin-resistant bacteria (MDRSA). This happens because they are in direct contact with flesh, blood, feces, saliva, and other bodily fluids of farmed animals. Inhabitants in the vicinity can be contaminated by the air and water coming directly from the facilities.
Low to middle-income countries are likely to face more problems
Although WHO has strongly recommended the reduction of medically important antimicrobials in all food-producing animals, the situation is likely to become more critical in low to middle-income countries, where the use of antibiotics is increasing due to the growth of the production of animal products, with an estimated 67% rise by the year 2030.
A 2019 study found hotspots of antimicrobial resistance in several areas in the Global South, such as the Red River delta in Vietnam and in northeast India. And it is also emerging in central India and southern China, south of Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, and areas surrounding Mexico City.
"Policy change is required to tackle this public health threat, and this is why we are urging governments to ban the irresponsible usage of antibiotics in the livestock industry", says Fernanda.
Sinergia Animal proposes yet another solution for the issue: they help people switch for a vegan diet for free in countries where they operate.
You can help change this reality in countries of the Global South by donating.