17 July 2016

HEALTH - Drug Resistance a Serious Concern for Animals & Humans

Antimicrobial resistance is a significant and growing concern in healthcare for both humans and animals. New research suggests that it’s possible our pets are contributing to the rise of drug resistant microbes in humans, or vice versa.

Antimicrobial drugs include antibiotics, antifungals, antiprotozoals, and antivirals.

These drugs are critical in treating infectious diseases, and it’s difficult to even imagine the number of lives they have saved. Stopping something that seems relatively small in the age of antibiotics, such as a urinary tract infection (UTI), can be life saving.

Although the “antiobiotic era” refers to the last 70 years of widespread antimicrobial use, there is evidence that humans have benefited from antibiotics since as early as 350-550 CE. Traces of antibiotics have been found in human bones from Sudanese Nubia, and there is evidence of exposure to antibiotics in late Roman period skeletons in Egypt.

Despite these early uses of antimicrobials in traditional and ancient medicine, the mass production and distribution of penicillin in 1945 revolutionized the use of antimicrobials. Prior to the introduction of widespread antimicrobials in human healthcare, small infections could become big problems very quickly.

And it’s possible that healthcare is returning to a time of infections without reliable treatments.

A 16-year study of companion animal UTI in Portugal found that resistance to cephalosporins grew from 2 percent to 20 percent between 2004 and 2014. Although the study looked specifically at companion animals, the bacteria in question, Proteus mirabilis, is common in animals and humans and the drugs used to treat it are the same. This research suggests that dogs, in particular, may be acting as “reservoirs” for the resistant microbes, and transmitting these microbes to their humans.

Another study into the rise of antimicrobial resistant E. coli found that resistant strains of the infection spread through a household between pets and owners.

While it’s not clear whether pets are harbouring the resistant infections and transmitting them to humans, or vice versa (and it’s likely working in both directions), it is clear that this issue will just keep growing.

Although many new classes of antibiotics were found between the 1950s and 70s, no new classes have been found since. With the decline in discoveries, scientists have modified existing antibiotics, and found ways to synthesize and combine them.

The infectious agents - bacteria particularly, but also fungi, viruses, and parasites - are adapting to even these modified and synthesized antimicrobials. Mortality rates from multi-drug resistant bacterial infections are already close to 25,000 patients per year in the EU and more than 63,000 patients die from hospital-acquired bacterial infections in the US each year.

The rise of drug resistant infections is a complex issue, with antimicrobial resistance developing in pet animals, food animals, and among humans.

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has recently established a Committee on Antimicrobials which will develop and recommend an overarching strategy that will allow the veterinary profession to effectively share robust and comprehensive recommendations for policy, and its implementation with legislators, regulators, the marketplace and other stakeholders.

The committee will also serve as the lead AVMA entity in the association’s collaboration with similarly focused stakeholders - including the human medical community - in a One Health approach to the issue of antimicrobial resistance.

One way to reduce the risk between companion animals and humans is to be cautious and intentional in handling food and waste. Washing hands thoroughly after cleaning the litter box or picking up any feces, cleaning food bowls regularly, and disinfecting household surfaces can all help prevent the spread of antimicrobial resistant infections.


By Tiffany Sostar
Tiffany is a writer, editor, academic, and animal lover who came late to her appreciation of pets. At 18, a rescue pup named Tasha saved her from a depression and she hasn't looked back. She has worked as the canine behaviour program coordinator for the Calgary Humane Society, and was a dog trainer specializing in working with fearful and reactive dogs for many years. She doesn't have any pets right now, but makes up for it by giving her petsitting clients (and any dogs she comes across on her frequent coffee shop adventures) extra snuggles.

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