Why are we focussing on antimicrobial resistance (AMR)?

What is antimicrobial resistance (AMR)?

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is the ability of bacteria and other microbes to resist the drugs used to inhibit or kill them. These microbes are sometimes referred to as ‘superbugs’ and are responsible for causing drug-resistant infections that are difficult to treat.

It is the microbe, not the person, animal or plant being treated, that becomes resistant to antimicrobial medicines. Therefore, even if a person uses antimicrobial drugs responsibly, they are still at risk of acquiring a drug-resistant infection.

Resistant microbes can pass between animals, plants and food, and in the environment. A ‘One Health’ approach which recognizes that the health of animals, humans, plants and the environment are interlinked is therefore essential to respond to AMR.

What causes AMR?

Although AMR is a naturally occurring phenomenon, the main cause of resistance to antimicrobials is antimicrobial drug use. Current high usage of antimicrobial drugs in humans, animals and plants is leading to a concerning rise in drug-resistance and making infections harder to treat.

The world has been using antimicrobial drugs uncontrollably for years and is now facing the consequences: The more antimicrobial drugs are used, the greater the chance that microbes will develop resistance to those drugs.

Why is AMR such an important issue?

AMR is one of the greatest and most complex threats currently facing the world and the impacts of drug resistance will affect everyone, everywhere. Unless action is taken to protect these medicines, we face a future where there may be no cure available if we or our animals become ill.

Like climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic, AMR is having a profound effect on the world and is already contributing to the deaths of thousands of people and animals each year. Increasing levels of AMR threaten health, economies, food security, food safety, livelihoods and development.

If left unaddressed AMR may force tens of millions more people into extreme poverty and will have the most devastating effects on the world’s poorest people.

What are antimicrobials?

Antimicrobials have saved millions of lives and are the cornerstone of modern human and veterinary medicine. Antimicrobials are essential medicines used to prevent and treat infections in humans, animals and plants. They include antibiotics, antivirals, antifungals and antiparasitics.

There are many different types of antimicrobials, of which several are particularly important for treating and preventing disease. The WHO document ‘Critically Important Antimicrobials for Human Medicine’ defines which antimicrobial drugs are of particular importance for human health and the OIE document ‘List of Antimicrobial Agents of Veterinary Importance’ defines which antimicrobial drugs are of particular important for animal health.

How are antimicrobials used?

In human health, antimicrobial drugs are used in the treatment and prevention of a range of illnesses including HIV, tuberculosis, malaria, sepsis, and sexually transmitted infections such as gonorrhoea. They are also routinely used in cancer treatment, surgery, dentistry and childbirth.

Antimicrobial drugs are also used all over the world to treat and prevent disease in companion animals and in food-producing animals. Deworming medication, for example, is a common antimicrobial drug given to pets and livestock.

In many countries, antimicrobial drugs are administered to food-producing animals not only for veterinary purposes (to treat and prevent disease), but also to promote growth in healthy animals. Antimicrobial pesticides are also used in agriculture to treat and prevent diseases in plants.

Sometimes the antimicrobials administered to animals and plants are the same as, or similar to, those used to treat humans.