March 9, 2018

Nobel laureates, cadre of change-makers praise UCalgary study results that inform World Health Organization guidelines

O'Brien Institute researchers aim to hold back antibiotic-resistant tsunami
 Researchers at the University of Calgary helped inform new World Health Organization guidelines around the use of antibiotics in food animals in an effort to reduce AMR. Photo by

Scanning electron micrograph of Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).

NIAID_Flickr under licence by Creative Commons Wiki

University of Calgary researchers are members of one of two teams behind new World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines being praised by the likes of Kofi Annan and Jimmy Carter in the global fight against anti-microbial resistance (AMR).

The research, conducted in part by UCalgary’s O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM), shows that restricting the use of antibiotics in food animals can reduce AMR, increasingly a threat as health-care providers across the globe come face to face with infections they cannot treat.

Based on the analysis, the WHO released new guidelines calling on food animal producers to cease using antibiotics as a means to prevent infection or boost growth.

The O’Brien Institute team was one of two selected by the WHO through a global competition to inform the United Nations’ strategy to combat AMR. As part of their winning bid, the Calgary team, comprised of O’Brien Institute researchers from W21C, the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and the CSM, conducted a meta-analysis of 175 studies on the topic of antibiotic resistance in animals. Twenty-one of those looked at antibiotic resistance in humans.

The analysis was published in The Lancet: Planetary Health, and more recently, garnered support from The Elders, an elite cadre of global change-makers founded by Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid revolutionary and former President of South Africa. The group – currently chaired by Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary-General – is a who’s who of international politics and activism that includes Nobel Peace laureates, former presidents, prime ministers and leaders working collectively for peace, justice and human rights.

The Elders welcomed the new WHO guidelines in a letter signed by Annan and jointly addressed to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in Rome, the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) in Paris, and the WHO in Geneva.

“We write to express our serious and growing concern at the risk posed to human health and development by antimicrobial resistance (AMR),” states the letter, which was also signed by the former prime minister of Norway, and former Director-General of the WHO, Gro Harlem Brundtland.

“Overuse and misuse of antibiotics in both animals and humans is contributing to AMR. We note that in some countries approximately 80 per cent of total consumption of medically important antibiotics is in the animal sector, largely for growth promotion in healthy animals… We urge the FAO and the OIE to give these guidelines their wholehearted support.”

Each year in the United States, more than two million people are infected by "superbugs," bacteria that have become resistant to antibiotics. More than 23,000 Americans die annually from these infections, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And Canada is not immune, warns Dr. John Conly, a UCalgary professor of in the Department of Medicine, co-director of the Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases, and a member of both the WHO Advisory Group for Integrated Surveillance of Antimicrobial Resistance and the O’Brien Institute.

In a co-written article published by Maclean’s this week, Conly and veterinary bacteriologist John Prescott, PhD,  point out the rates of superbug infections at paediatric and adult hospitals have increased over the last year.

“Modern medicine is not possible without effective antibiotics. Infections with antimicrobial-resistant bacteria increase both the degree of illness and death rates, with enormous social and economic costs,” they write.

A global response is underway, including here in Canada, but Conly and Prescott write, “Canada needs to do more — much more.”

“We need a national Action Plan for 2018, a timely roadmap with concrete actions directed at the regional and local levels, where most decisions take place. Such a roadmap should include robust public awareness and education campaigns; enhanced infection prevention and control; surveillance of use and resistance to antibiotics; improved regulatory processes; and more research into reducing antibiotic overuse across the human-animal-environment ecosystem.

“It is time for Canada to step forward and not only place its own house in order, but demonstrate a global leadership role in stemming the tide against the antibiotic resistance tsunami.”

Dr. John Conly is a professor in the departments of Medicine, Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, and Microbiology, Immunology and  Infectious Diseases at the CSM and a co-founder of W21C.