The Coronavirus crisis has caused massive disruption, is omnipresent in the media and is apparent in most everyday life situations.
Yet there is another silent pandemic, slowly spreading across the world that few discuss, and many have never heard of, made ever-more deadly by the lack of attention we pay to it - antimicrobial resistance (AMR). Put simply, AMR means that bacteria are becoming resistant to antimicrobial drugs, particularly antibiotics.
The implications are immense; if bacteria become resistant to our most powerful weapon against them, then we will be left defenceless against the diseases and infections that we used to be able to treat routinely.
Therapies such as cancer chemotherapy, diabetes management, surgery or organ transplantation would also put patients at increased risk. And, in the COVID-19 crisis, antibiotics are also much needed to treat secondary bacterial infections where cells are already severely damaged by the viral infection.
In fact, the WHO estimates that AMR already accounts for around 700,000 deaths every year, and this figure is projected to increase significantly if we do not act. While several policy programmes to combat AMR already exist, they are insufficient to counter this pending health catastrophe. For example, the EU is currently implementing its One Health Action Plan against AMR.
“The implications are immense; if bacteria become resistant to our most powerful weapon against them, then we will be left defenceless against the diseases and infections that we used to be able to treat routinely”
Unfortunately, however, last year’s report by the European Court of Auditors clearly showed that the Commission’s support for EU Member States in this area has not led to any demonstrable results as yet.
Antimicrobial resistance develops in bacteria when they are exposed to drugs like antibiotics. The rise inbacterial strains that show this resistance is clearly linked to our overuse of antimicrobial drugs. The reasons for this overuse are complex, and tackling AMR therefore requires a holistic, cross-sectoral approach.
However, one of the key issues we should address quickly and determinedly is the widespread use of antibiotics in intensive agriculture and aquaculture: the majority of antibiotics are currently used in animals.
They are often applied in industrial farming to prevent healthy animals from falling sick, but this stands in stark contrast to their intended use as a medicine of last resort against bacterial infections. This means we urgently need more sustainable farming conditions and improved animal health and welfare standards.
Using antibiotics as a preventive measure only makes a perverse kind of sense in scenarios where hundreds or thousands of animals are kept indoors in cruelly overcrowded conditions.
It’s clear that this creates uncontrollable hotbeds for germs to develop and spread. Yet in order to produce more meat at as low a ‘cost’ as possible, it is cheaper for conventional meat producers to use antibiotics as prophylaxis rather than invest in improving welfare standards.
In other words, market-driven incentives are headed in completely the wrong direction. Cheap meat is seen as a must-have on our supermarket shelves, notwithstanding the fact that it comes at a massively higher cost than the price suggests.
“Antibiotics were developed to protect us from severe illnesses, they don’t belong on our plates, and, sooner or later, administering antibiotics to healthy animals will come back to haunt us”
Antibiotics were developed to protect us from severe illnesses, they don’t belong on our plates, and, sooner or later, administering antibiotics to healthy animals will come back to haunt us.
The EU can be a massive driver for change through its Common Agricultural Policy, which could be reoriented to support the shift towards sustainable, regional and diversified agriculture, whose products would remain affordable for everyone.
Coronavirus has also shown that regional food production networks with shorter supply chains are much more resilient in times of crisis.
Unfortunately, the CAP still supports the business-as-usual approach, but the upcoming Farm-to-Fork Strategy promises to take a much-needed holistic view of our food production system and represents a chance to make important changes.
Similarly, the EU’s One Health Action Plan still needs to adopt an even broader vision, interlinking the human, animal and environmental dimensions of AMR. For example, it should strengthen the environmental regulatory framework around pharmaceuticals, which are still excluded from EU regulations.
It should also improve support for Member States’ implementation of their respective National Action Plans and demonstrate the foresight, leadership and policy coherence needed in all areas relevant to fighting AMR.
In addition, it could allocate further resources to researching natural alternatives to antibiotics. For example, food-borne bacterial infections could be prevented by using bacteriophages, which would in turn reduce the need to use antibiotics in human health.
However, there is still no legal framework for their use in the EU. In addition, a recent study has shown that even an impaired gut-microbiome can promote the development of AMR. Thus, further research into the causes of AMR should be promoted, particularly as we are still in the early stages of understanding the complexities of the human intestinal microbiome.
We launched the Interest Group on AMR in the European Parliament in order to bring together those MEPs who are committed to making the necessary noise and combatting this silent pandemic. We are ready to take on this fight - join us!