The development of antibiotics has provided much success against infectious diseases in animals and humans. But the intensive and extensive use of antibiotics over the years has resulted in the emergence of drug-resistant bacterial pathogens. The existence of a reservoir( s) of antibiotic resistant bacteria and antibiotic resistance genes in an interactive environment of animals, plants, and humans provides the opportunity for further transfer and dissemination of antibiotic resistance. The emergence of antibiotic resistant bacteria has created growing concern about its impact on animal and human health.
To specifically address the impact of antibiotic resistance resulting from the use of antibiotics in agriculture, the American Academy of Microbiology convened a colloquium, “Antibiotic Resistance and the Role of Antimicrobials in Agriculture: A Critical Scientific Assessment,” in Santa Fe, New Mexico, November 2-4, 2001. Colloquium participants included academic, industrial, and government researchers with a wide range of expertise, including veterinary medicine, microbiology, food science, pharmacology, and ecology. These scientists were asked to provide their expert opinions on the current status of antibiotic usage and antibiotic resistance, current research information, and provide recommendations for future research needs. The research areas to be addressed were roughly categorized under the following areas:
- Origins and reservoirs of resistance
- Transfer of resistance
- Overcoming/modulating resistance by altering usage
- Interrupting transfer of resistance.
The consensus of colloquium participants was that the evaluation of antibiotic usage and its impact were complex and subject to much speculation and polarization. Part of the complexity stems from the diverse array of animals and production practices for food animal production. The overwhelming consensus was that any use of antibiotics creates the possibility for the development of antibiotic resistance, and that there already exist pools of antibiotic resistance genes and antibiotic resistant bacteria. Much discussion revolved around the measurement of antibiotic usage, the measurement of antibiotic resistance, and the ability to evaluate the impact of various types of usage (animal, human) on overall antibiotic resistance. Additionally, many participants identified commensal bacteria as having a possible role in the continuance of antibiotic resistance as reservoirs. Participants agreed that many of the research questions could not be answered completely because of their complexity and the need for better technologies. The concept of the “smoking gun” to indicate that a specific animal source was important in the emergence of certain antibiotic resistant pathogens was discussed, and it was agreed that ascribing ultimate responsibility is likely to be impossible. There was agreement that expanded and more improved surveillance would add to current knowledge. Science-based risk assessments would provide better direction in the future.
As far as preventive or intervention activities, colloquium participants reiterated the need for judicious/prudent use guidelines. Yet they also emphasized the need for better dissemination and incorporation by end-users. It is essential that there are studies to measure the impact of educational efforts on antibiotic usage. Other recommendations included alternatives to antibiotics, such as commonly mentioned vaccines and probiotics. There also was an emphasis on management or production practices that might decrease the need for antibiotics. Participants also stressed the need to train new researchers and to interest students in postdoctoral work, through training grants, periodic workshops, and comprehensive conferences. This would provide the expertise needed to address these difficult issues in the future. Finally, the participants noted that scientific societies and professional organizations should play a pivotal role in providing technical advice, distilling and disseminating information to scientists, media, and consumers, and in increasing the visibility and funding for these important issues.
The overall conclusion is that antibiotic resistance remains a complex issue with no simple answers. This reinforces the messages from other meetings. The recommendations from this colloquium provide some insightful directions for future research and action.