The use of antimicrobials in animals across the world has shown an overall decrease of 27% between 2016 and 2018, according to data reported to the World Organisation for Animal Health (WOAH, founded as OIE).

And similar progress has been made in the use of antibiotics for growth promotion also with the use of antibiotics in healthy animals – to boost growth – no longer a practice in nearly 70% of reporting countries.

“In a world that is more globalised and interconnected than ever before, this is a positive step forward as it shows that a growing number of farmers, animal owners and animal health professionals worldwide are adapting their practices to use antimicrobials more prudently,” said director general of the WOAH, Dr. Monique Eloit.

“These efforts contribute to protecting everyone’s health. But much more needs to be done to preserve our therapeutic options and overcome the spread of infectious diseases.”

Antimicrobial drugs, such as antibiotics, rank among humanity’s most spectacular achievements, according to the WOAH, but many of these life-saving drugs are losing their efficacy against numerous microbes due to ‘antimicrobial resistance’ (AMR).

Partially a natural process, AMR can be greatly accelerated by the overuse or misuse of antimicrobials, which can exert selective pressure for pathogens with resistance traits to survive and thrive.

These ‘superbugs’ can then travel through waterways, soil and air, infecting all
living beings, regardless of their species, along the way.

A silent threat

In 2019 alone, some 1.27 million people died because of antibiotic drug-resistant bacteria, according to a landmark study published in The Lancet. However, the
proportion of these deaths linked to AMR in animals still remains unclear.

The phenomenon can originate in animal, human or plant populations, but then it poses a threat to all the other species.

To curb it effectively, all sectors must join forces and encourage the prudent use of antimicrobials, according to the WOAH.

Recording and analysing data on antimicrobial use are critical to fully understand this multi-faceted rising danger. With the aim of monitoring trends in the animal-health sector, the WOAH launched an annual data-collection process in 2015.

The initiative has seen steady and increased engagement from the members of the organisation, who have improved their capacity to gather and provide more detailed information over time.

Despite the disruptions caused by Covid-19, nearly 160 countries have participated in the last round of data collection, and some of them have also published their information on national platforms.

It is, to date, the most comprehensive set of information available on the use of antimicrobials in animals, the WOAH said.

“As the proportion of pathogens resistant to antimicrobials rises, the efforts of the scientific community to accelerate the development of new antibiotics and drugs to tackle ‘superbugs’ should redouble,” said head of the antimicrobial resistance and veterinary products department of the WOAH, Dr. Javier Yugueros-Marcos.

“Most importantly, we need to see greater use of alternatives such as vaccines and promote quick wins like washing hands with soapy water and changing clothes and boots before treating, or dealing with, animals.”