A comprehensive study of farming practices is underway as part of an EU-funded project to help tackle the growing problem of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) in humans.
The EU-funded EFFORT project, launched in December 2013, aims to shine new light on how AMR enters and spreads in the food chain, leading to exposure of humans to AMR. Through farm-based studies and the use of state-of-the-art molecular technologies, the project will help policy makers, scientists and health professionals develop effective strategies to limit exposure to AMR.
There is an economic angle to this as well. Not only does AMR result in 25 000 deaths a year, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC); it costs over €1.5 billion in healthcare expenses and productivity losses due to work absenteeism.
The need for deeper understanding
“Using antimicrobials invariably leads to the selection and spread of resistant bacteria,” explains project manager Jaap Wagenaar from Utrecht University, the Netherlands. “AMR is an increasing problem.”
While action at the EU level has been taken – the Commission launched an Action Plan against AMR in 2011 – an accurate measurement of the AMR threat posed by antibiotic-treated animals has never been fully captured. The extent to which antibiotics given to farm animals represents a possible pathway leading to AMR exposure in humans requires deeper investigation, and the five-year EFFORT project aims to fill this knowledge gap.
The EFFORT consortium, made up of 20 partners from 10 European countries, brings together complementary strengths in antimicrobial resistance, food safety, exposure assessment, microbiology and epidemiology. By working together, the team aims to increase European knowledge about possible AMR transmission pathways, allowing for the development of new science-based measures.
Fact finding on the farm
EFFORT scientists hope to further understand the causes and effects of antimicrobial resistance in the food chain by obtaining first-hand data from farms. “EFFORT partners in all participating countries have started full-scale sampling of farms, using a protocol developed within the project,” says Wagenaar. “Each farm visit takes about four hours, during which faecal droppings from animals (poultry, swine, veal calves, turkeys, fish, companion animals and wildlife) are collected and samples taken from the farm environment.”
In order to investigate risk factors for antimicrobial resistance, EFFORT scientists are also gathering farm-specific data by interviewing farmers. Questions focus on farm management, animal antimicrobial usage, biosecurity, animal health and welfare. In this way, scientists hope to find ways of reducing the use of antimicrobials in veterinary practice. Concrete results from these data will be extracted further down the line.
EFFORT is also carrying out an exposure assessment of humans from animal and environmental sources. “This will create knowledge that can be used for evidence-based decision making, and for anticipating the impact of changing practices on animal health and human exposure,” says Wagenaar. “The ultimate aim of these measures is to decrease, or at least minimise the further development and spread of antimicrobial resistance.” The project is due for completion in November 2018.