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Antibiotics: fact-checking the headlines

This World Antibiotics Awareness week we’re fact-checking the headlines

Antibiotics and antimicrobial resistance are increasingly popular topics. More and more headlines are splashed across our daily social feeds that distill these complex topics into just a few words. It creates myths and makes it difficult to determine what is accurate.

For this year’s World Antibiotic Awareness Week (18-22 November), we’ve picked five particularly common headlines to see what the science says.

“Antibiotic Resistance is a Threat that Can Cost Lives”

Verdict: True

It’s true that antibiotic resistance – known as AMR – is a serious threat to global public health. It is hard to exaggerate its impact on human and animal life. Antibiotics are the only type of medicine that is effective at fighting bacterial infections, from simple ear infections to more serious conditions, such as pneumonia. Without them, we risk going back to a time when humans and animals could fall seriously ill and die from minor ailments. 

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report this month that estimates that 35,000 people die each year from a resistance infection. This is down 18 per cent from 2013, which is progress but much more can still be done.

No studies have quantified the loss of animals due to resistant infections, but it is unquestionably an issue and one that must be addressed for the sake of animal welfare and control of AMR.

“Animals Are the Primary Drivers of Resistance”

Verdict: False. Animals play a role but are not the ‘primary’ drivers

Antibiotic resistance is complex, to say the least. Bacteria – resistant or not – can pass between humans and animals but, at present, scientists’ understanding of how this happens and its frequency is limited.

Antibiotic use in animals plays a role in the development of resistance both in animals and people. However, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, the “major cause of antibiotic resistance in humans remains the use of antibiotics in human medicine” .

“Ending Antibiotic Use in Animals Will Solve the AMR Crisis”

Verdict: False

AMR is a ‘One Health’ challenge, meaning action is necessary in both the human and animal health sectors to manage the problem. 

As the World Health Organisation explains, “AMR does not recognize geographic or human-animal borders”.

In fact, research shows that if action is only taken in animals, AMR in people will likely remain unchecked. The OECD also estimates that “three out of four deaths could be averted by spending just USD$2 per person a year on measures as simple as handwashing and more prudent prescription of antibiotics.”

Reducing the need for antibiotics in animals can help, but unless similar, concrete action is taken in other sectors, we cannot address resistance.

When Animals are Treated with Antibiotics, Antibiotics End Up in Our Food

Verdict: False

The fact is every antibiotic has a clear withdrawal period – the number of days a livestock farmer must wait after an antibiotic treatment before that animal or its produce can enter the food supply. This withdrawal period allows time for the animal to sufficiently process the antibiotic, so no harmful traces, or ‘residues’ are left in any foods that come from that animal.

Regulations surrounding withdrawal periods and ‘maximum residue limits’ are set and upheld internationally, and both are reviewed as part of a medicine’s approval process. Governments also conduct random tests on food coming from farms for harmful antibiotic residues to ensure that withdrawal periods are being respected. Penalties for violation can be steep.

Farmers and Veterinarians can Reduce the Need for Antibiotics in Animals

Verdict: True

Antibiotics are the only way to treat a bacterial disease. There is currently no alternative. But, we can reduce the need for antibiotics through better prevention, detection and treatment of disease. 

This means maximizing tools like vaccination, nutrition, antiparasitics, biosecurity measures and diagnostics. By better protecting animals from the threat of disease, identifying health issues earlier and treating them quickly and responsibly, we can decrease disease levels and with it, the need for antibiotics. This respects animal welfare as it addresses disease risk and ensures animals are never left untreated.

Our Roadmap to Reducing the Need for Antibiotics outlines how this approach can be expanded worldwide.

Staying Ahead of the Headlines

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