In November, The World Health Organization (WHO) issued new guidelines calling on farmers and the food industry to stop the routine use of antibiotics to spur growth and prevent disease in healthy animals.1 The new guidelines are prompted by a recent study in The Lancet Planetary Health on the role that antibiotic use in healthy food-producing animals plays in promoting antibiotic-resistant bacteria in both animals and humans.2
The issue is of tremendous significance because of the vast proportion of food-producing animals world-wide. According to a statement released by the WHO, approximately 80% of medically important antibiotics that are consumed are used in the animal sector—mostly to promote growth in healthy animals.1
“Antibiotic use in human medicine, veterinary medicine, and agriculture has been linked to the rise of antibiotic resistance globally,” wrote the authors of the study.2
Based on a systematic review and meta-analysis of the available data, the researchers found that using fewer antibiotics in healthy food-producing animals reduced the presence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in these animals by up to 39%. Less antibiotic use in healthy food-producing animals also appeared to be connected with less antibiotic resistance among humans, especially among people with direct exposure to food-producing animals (eg, farmers). The implications of these latter findings for the general human population were unclear, however, given the low number of studies addressing this issue in the analysis.2
The WHO pointed out that overuse and misuse of antibiotics in both animals and humans contributes to an ever-increasing threat of antibiotic resistance. In fact, some of the bacteria that cause serious infections in humans have already developed resistance to most if not all available antibiotics, with very few new options moving through the research and development pipeline.1
Recommendations from the newly released WHO guidelines include3:
- An overall reduction in the use of all classes of medically important antimicrobials in food-producing animals
- Complete restriction of use of all classes of medically important antimicrobials in food-producing animals for growth promotion
- Complete restriction of use of all classes of medically important antimicrobials in food-producing animals for prevention of infectious diseases that have not yet been clinically diagnosed
- Antimicrobials classified as “critically important” for human medicine should not be used for control of the dissemination of a clinically diagnosed infectious disease identified within a group of food-producing animals
- Antimicrobials classified as “highest priority critically important” for human medicine should not be used for treatment of food-producing animals with a clinically diagnosed infectious disease
In addition, the guidelines offer two best practice statements:
- Any new class of antimicrobials or new antimicrobial combination developed for use in humans will be considered critically important for human medicine unless categorized otherwise by WHO
- Medically important antimicrobials that are not currently used in food production should not be used in the future in food production including in food-producing animals or plants
According to Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, director-general of the WHO, a shortage of effective antibiotics is just as serious of a threat to the public health and safety as an outbreak of a deadly disease.1
“Strong, sustained action across all sectors is vital if we are to turn back the tide of antimicrobial resistance and keep the world safe,” he said.
- WHO Media Centre. Accessed 12/1/2017.
- Tang KL, et al. Lancet Planetary Health. 2017;1(8): e316–e327.
- WHO guidelines on use of medically important antimicrobials in food-producing animals. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2017. Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 IGO.