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Antimicrobial use in agriculture driving deadly global antimicrobial resistance

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By George Munene

According to the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI)– an international agricultural research institute–, the agricultural sector accounts for over 60 per cent of the global increase in antimicrobial use. This makes it a leading contributor to antimicrobial resistance (AMR)– an emerging global health threat.

World Antimicrobial Awareness Week which is marked between 18 to 24 November, puts in focus what the World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared as amongst the top ten global public health threats facing humanity.

According to a 2019 study, 4.95 million people died from illnesses related to AMR. 1.27 million of these deaths were directly caused by AMR. This is more deaths than HIV or malaria.

Antimicrobial resistance is caused by the misuse and overuse of antimicrobials which leads to diseases becoming drug-resistant and the transmission of resistant genes/ bacteria across species.

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Antimicrobials are crucial in agriculture as they treat bacterial diseases of plants such as wilts, leaf spots, blights, scabs e.t.c. In animals, they are even more crucial as they both treat and prevent infections as well as promote growth and enhance feed efficiency.

They are passed from animals and plants to manure, irrigation systems, rivers, lakes, and slaughterhouses and disseminated to the environment, and processed foods.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), long-term, excessive use or misuse of these drugs causes reduced food production leading to higher economic losses to farm households, and environmental contamination. 

Repeated application of soils with manure or water-containing antimicrobial agents (AMA) results in a reduction of soil beneficial bacteria contributing to deteriorating soil quality. Crucially, the soil itself becomes a store for antimicrobial-resistant bacteria.

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The cost of antimicrobial resistance to economies is significant. In the short and medium term, AMR leads to death and disability, and prolonged illnesses in both people and animals. It also results in longer hospital stays, requiring more expensive medicines. 

In the long term, ineffective antimicrobials jeopardise the success of modern medicine in treating infections, including during major surgery and cancer chemotherapy. In agriculture, it makes soils increasingly unfertile.

Photo Credit: International Livestock Research Institute

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