Each November, the United Nations World Antibiotic Awareness Week is observed with the aim of increasing global awareness of ‘best practice’ for the use of antibiotics. Since their discovery in 1928, antibiotics have served as a key foundation of modern medicine, widely used for the treatment and prevention of bacterial infections, and saving countless lives.

However, the persistent overuse and misuse of antibiotics, particularly in recent decades, in both human and animal health, have encouraged the emergence and spread of ‘antibiotic resistance’. Antibiotic resistance occurs when the bacteria being treated effectively develops the ability to defeat, or resist, the drugs designed to kill them.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO):

“The world urgently needs to change the way it prescribes and uses antibiotics. Even if new medicines are developed, without behavior change, antibiotic resistance will remain a major threat.”

In 2015, WHO confirmed that tackling antibiotic resistance is a high priority, developing a global action plan on antimicrobial resistance, including antibiotic resistance. The plan aims to ensure the prevention and treatment of infectious diseases with safe and effective medicine, and appropriate practice. The plan has five strategic objectives:

  1. To improve awareness and understanding of antimicrobial resistance.
  2. To strengthen surveillance and research.
  3. To reduce the incidence of infection.
  4. To optimize the use of antimicrobial medicines.
  5. To ensure sustainable investment in countering antimicrobial resistance[i].

The World Antibiotic Awareness Week observed in November 2019 highlighted the threat that antimicrobial resistance poses human health, food safety and security, sustainable food production and agricultural development.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO):

“The intensification of agricultural production has led to a rising use of antimicrobials – a use that is expected to more than double by 2030. Antimicrobials are important for the treatment of animal and plant diseases but must be used responsibly and only when needed. To stay ahead of antimicrobial resistance…we need to invest in good agricultural practices that prioritize infection prevention and we need to have the right policies in place to support these sustainable agricultural practices.” 

While farmers and food producers can reduce the need for antimicrobials by applying good health and hygiene practices, this is unlikely to be sufficient as a single measure.

Cutting-edge research projects funded by the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems lab (J-WAFS) at MIT are looking at avoiding antimicrobials altogether, instead harnessing bacteriophages – bacteria’s natural enemies – as pathogen control agents.  

Read about one such project here. 

[i] https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/antibiotic-resistance