NEW federal funding to attack antimicrobial resistance has been welcomed, amid ongoing efforts to address the rising global threat of superbugs breeding in the livestock production sector and spreading unchecked.
Health Minister Greg Hunt announced this week $5.9 million from the Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) would be used to help tackle the threat of microorganisms like bacteria, viruses or parasites becoming resistant to standard medical treatments.
Mr Hunt said microbial resistance resulted in standard medical treatments like antibiotics, antivirals or anti-malarials becoming ineffective, allowing infections to persist and possibly spread.
He said infections were becoming increasingly difficult to treat, leaving health care professionals with limited - or in some instances zero - treatment options.
“Australia has one of the highest rates of antibiotic use in the world and rates of resistance to some common antibiotics are increasing globally,” he said.
“Commercial returns on the discovery and development of new antibiotics is relatively low, so it is an area of research that doesn’t attract sufficient private sector investment.
“That’s why the Turnbull government is stepping in to invest in this important area of medical research.”
Mr Hunt said the research work from the funding investment would be consistent with objectives in the National Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) Strategy 2015-2019, developed by the Australian government in partnership with states and territories, academics, research organisations and industry groups, including agriculture.
It will include a focus on; knowledge gaps in relation to the development and spread of resistance; and the development of new products, including diagnostic technologies and therapies, policies and approaches to prevent, detect and respond to resistance.
In November last year, Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce revealed $9.4m had been allocated in the 2016-17 federal budget to continue work already being done on AMR.
At the time, he said to complement the work of a surveillance system for human AMR another one, to monitor the livestock and aquatic animal sectors, was also being progressed.
“Resistance to antimicrobials is such an urgent global health priority that the World Health Organization (WHO) describes it as a looming crisis in which common and treatable infections are becoming life threatening,” he said.
Mr Joyce said antimicrobials had a variety of uses in agriculture and were regarded as important for animal health, welfare, biosecurity and production.
He said Australia had one of the most conservative approaches to the use of antimicrobials in livestock production in the world, with nearly all antimicrobials used in animals being Schedule 4 medicines, meaning they were prescription only medicines.
“All antimicrobial products are evaluated by the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority before being registered for use in Australian animals,” he said.
“This evaluation includes assessing the risk of development of antimicrobial resistance.”
This week, Animal Medicines Australia said the $5.9m funding announcement, as part of the government’s AMR Strategy, was a welcome initiative.
AMA CEO Ben Stapley said the animal medicines industry was committed to ensuring it contributed to healthier pets and livestock and a healthier community by ensuring antimicrobials were used “judiciously and responsibly”, which included industry meeting its commitments as identified under the AMR Strategy.
Mr Stapley said AMA also supported a ‘one health’ approach where human and animal health and welfare worked together to meet the challenges posed by antimicrobial resistance.
He said ‘one health’ recognised that human health and animal health were “interdependent” and stakeholders must collaborate if objectives, including addressing AMR risks, were to be achieved.
In Australia, one of the key barriers to effective policy and decision making is a lack of independent, verifiable and quality data on animal pathogens and zoonotic bacteria causing infections in animals, he said.
“AMA is seeking government support for an AMR surveillance program in animals,” he said.
“This is an essential component necessary to support informed policy and decision making regarding AMR risk and appropriate responses in Australia.
“The animal medicines industry is critical to supporting the health and welfare of our livestock and our pets.
“We look forward to working with the government to support appropriate responses to AMR that reflect all aspects of antimicrobial use in Australia.”
Global work ongoing to attack antimicrobial resistance in animal agriculture
A spokesperson for Mr Joyce’s department said current work in the animal health and agriculture sector included developing proof-of-concept models for AMR surveillance in food animals to complement the National Antimicrobial Use and Resistance Australia (AURA) Surveillance System in humans, as well as supporting the World Organisation for Animal Health’s (OIE) initiatives towards mitigating AMR.
AMR also featured in last week’s general session of the OIE, the spokesperson said.
“While combatting resistance to antimicrobials requires action in all sectors where antimicrobials are used, it is widely recognised that high levels of human antibiotic prescription are the primary issue in Australia,” the spokesperson said.
“While antimicrobials have a variety of uses in agriculture and are regarded as important for animal health, welfare, biosecurity and production, Australia has one of the most conservative approaches to the use of antimicrobials in livestock production in the world.
“For example, fluoroquinolones are not permitted for use in food producing animals.”
The spokesperson said the profile of AMR continued to rise internationally with a political declaration made at a high-level meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in September last year.
Last November, the OIE also published a strategy document on plans to tackle AMR that said. “the overuse and misuse of antimicrobial products has dramatically contributed to the emergence and spread of antimicrobial resistant organisms, which pose an extraordinary threat to human and animal health and to the world ecosystem”.
“Now the international community must come together and take steps to combat antimicrobial resistance, it’s not too late,” said OIE Director General Monique Eloit.
“As the saying goes, ‘An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’.”
The strategy’s four main objectives are to; improve awareness and understanding; strengthen knowledge through surveillance and research; support good governance and capacity building; and encourage implementation of international standards.
“In many countries, OIE Performance of Veterinary Services (PVS) evaluation missions have found that antimicrobial drugs are widely available and their distribution and use is largely uncontrolled and unmonitored,” the document said.
“Despite member countries adopting standards on antimicrobial use and on monitoring and surveillance for resistance, the current lack of implementation in many countries constrains our ability to fully understand the risks, to target interventions and to monitor progress.
“Since 2015, the World Assembly of OIE Delegates has set as a priority the development of a global database on the use of antimicrobials in animals - to establish baseline information using a harmonised approach, to measure trends over time and to evaluate actions taken to ensure responsible and prudent use of antimicrobial agents.
“This global database will be linked to the OIE World Animal Health Information System - a web-based reporting system that collects, processes and avails online information about animal populations and diseases in real time, providing notifications to member countries of sanitary events in animals.”
Former NSW Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan raised several public warnings about the rise of ‘superbugs’ through the over-use of antibiotics in China’s intensive poultry industry and potential for the resistance threat to spread globally.
“Allegedly if it gets out of China it can threaten the world and the human race because it’s a super, super bug for which there is no fix (at the moment),” he said at Senate estimates hearings in December 2015.