Antimicrobial resistance (AMR)

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Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is the ability of a microbe or bacteria to fend off the medicines that we use to treat the infections that they cause. It is one of the most serious threats to global health.

As certain antibiotics lose their ability to kill particular strains of microbe, and if we cannot develop new drugs that can kill them, then by the year 2050 it is expected there will be approximately 10 million additional deaths per year, worldwide, from drug-resistant infections.

AMR has become a major threat due the overuse and misuse of antimicrobials such as antibiotics in the last few decades. This has resulted in microbes being exposed to a much larger number and greater concentration of antimicrobials, increasing their chances of developing resistance. Reducing our use of antibiotics is one of the best ways we can tackle this growing crisis.

AMR is not just about human health and healthcare: highly resistant bacteria and antibiotic residues are found in bathing water, streams and slurry. This affects farming, the environment, the food chain and ultimately the food we eat.

In Northern Ireland we are adopting a One Health approach with specialists in healthcare, public health, agriculture, veterinary science, the food chain and the environment combining their efforts to avert a post-antibiotic disaster. Only a One Health approach can help keep our antibiotics working.

On 24 January 2019 at the World Economic Forum at Davos, the UK Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Matt Hancock MP announced the UK’s 20 Year Vision and five-year National Action Plan for tackling AMR in the UK. These documents were the result of collaborative efforts by the UK Government and Devolved Administrations.

At the Balmoral Show, we will publically launch “Changing the Culture” – the One Health AMR Action Plan for Northern Ireland. Changing the Culture has been developed by the three lead government departments in Northern Ireland working collaboratively - the Department of Health; the Food Standards Agency and the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, along with professionals in associated agencies, and outlines the necessary actions to encourage responsible use of antibiotics in human as well as in veterinary medicine, both in food producing animals and in pets.

The first step to address the challenge of AMR is to change the culture and take action to reduce the need for and misuse of antibiotics. This involves the implementation of good biosecurity practices, farm health programmes, vaccination programmes and good hygiene measures. This will lead to improvement of the overall health status of animals and significantly reduce both the prevalence of endemic and risk of epizootic diseases in animals, thus reducing the need for antimicrobial use. This in turn will increase productivity and protect the trade of animals and animal products.

Therefore farmers and pet owners in conjunction with their veterinarians have a vital role to play in tackling AMR in animals. Planned actions in Changing the Culture, the One Health AMR Action Plan for NI include providing guidance and training to animal keepers on animal husbandry practices, supporting industry initiatives aimed at reducing the use of antimicrobials and collaborating on initiatives to raise awareness whilst encouraging behavioural change by veterinarians and animal keepers.

However Government cannot take the necessary steps alone. To make this possible it will require collaboration from a wide range of organisations and stakeholders. Whilst it is pleasing to note that there has been significant progress to date in reducing antimicrobial use in a number of the farming sectors, much more needs to be done.

It is now time to focus our collective efforts and continue to deliver on these actions in a co-ordinated and effective manner. The publication of Changing the Culture, the One Health AMR Action Plan for NI marks the start of this process and I would recommend that you read it and consider what actions you can take in order to address this major threat.

I would encourage you to discuss AMR with your private veterinary practitioner and in particular the steps that you could take to reduce antimicrobial use in your animals. But above all consider the following key messages:

l Not every condition needs to be treated with antibiotics so don’t expect antibiotics from your vet for every type of infection as they may not be needed.

l Don’t source antibiotics other than when prescribed through a veterinary practice and ensure sick animals are clinically assessed before an antibiotic is administered.

l Do not share or reuse antibiotics prescribed for animals for an earlier illness, even if the symptoms appear the same.

l When an antibiotic is prescribed by a vet, ensure the full course is administered even if the animal recovers after a few doses.

l Above all, do not withhold antibiotics from an animal with a clinically confirmed bacterial infection. Use the mantra “as little as possible, as much as necessary”.

Advice and further information on AMR can be found at https://www.daera-ni.gov.uk/articles/antimicrobial-resistance-amr. Changing the Culture, the One Health AMR Action Plan for NI will be available on the website from 16th May, and copies will also be available at the DAERA AMR stand at the Balmoral Show on 16th May.

The Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture Alliance (RUMA) has also issued separate detailed advice (https://www.ruma.org.uk/) on the use of antimicrobials for poultry, pigs, dairy and beef cattle, sheep and fish production.