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United Nations Signs Commitment on Antibiotics to Fight Global Threat of Superbugs, Downplays Livestock Industry’s Role in the Crisis

September 22nd, 2016
Center for Food Safety

WASHINGTON— Yesterday the United Nations (U.N.) General Assembly met in New York to commit to global actions for combatting the growing public health crisis of antibiotic resistant bacteria. All 193 member countries formally signed and accepted the Political Declaration of the High-level Meeting of the General Assembly on Antimicrobial Resistance. Bacteria resistant to antibiotic medicines pose urgent threats to human health and survival. The United Kingdom Review on Antimicrobial Resistance concluded that without appropriate action, the number of deaths from antibiotic-resistant infections will rise from the 700,000 globally today to 10 million by the year 2050.

“The fact that the most recognized international political body devoted its attention to antibiotic resistance demonstrates the enormous threat we face. It is imperative that countries continue to implement national and global strategies to reduce antimicrobial use and curb the spread of resistant bacteria,” said Cameron Harsh, Center for Food Safety Senior Manager for Organic and Animal Policy.

The declaration calls on nations to develop national action plans that outline “measures for strengthening appropriate antibiotic use in humans and animals.” It calls for multi-sectoral collaboration to develop effective surveillance mechanisms, initiate education and awareness activities, and promote prevention strategies, such as investments in new antimicrobials, vaccines, and other alternatives. The endorsing nations also commit to providing consistent and adequate funding to support the development and implementation of national action plans of lower-income nations.

“Unfortunately but unsurprisingly the declaration downplays the role of livestock production in driving the crisis and fails to explicitly commit nations to work toward reducing antimicrobial use in all sectors – including and especially animals raised for food,” continued Harsh.

The declaration emphasizes identifying “appropriate use” or “optimal use” of antimicrobials, instead of explicitly focusing on achieving overall reductions in antibiotic use. Reiterating such phrases, including the United States’ preferred term of “judicious use,” leaves the door open for countries to conclude that current use levels are acceptable.

“Omitting calls for reduced use fails to effectively safeguard public health and does not address root issues, like poor livestock rearing conditions, that have driven the overuse and misuse of antimicrobials,” said Harsh.

Commitments to reduce use are particularly needed from countries with intensive animal production. Roughly 80% of antimicrobials sold in the U.S., for example, are marketed to the livestock industry. Routine use of antimicrobials in food animals for non-therapeutic purposes like growth promotion and disease prevention has directly contributed to resistance in bacteria that threaten both human and animal health. There is an acknowledgement in the declaration that resistant organisms are “mainly due to inappropriate use of antimicrobial medicines in human, animal, food, agriculture and aquaculture sectors,” and a few additional references to “animal health” are use “in humans and animals.” But the declared commitments do not include any explicit calls to work toward the reductions in livestock that are necessary to preserve important human medicines.

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