Stopping the spread of “superbugs”

SEAOHUN recently sponsored health professionals from Vietnam and Malaysia to participate in a One Health research conference in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Apiradee Treerutkuarkul talks to one of the travel award recipients on how the rational use of antibiotics among animal farming can prevent antimicrobial resistance.

For decades, public health experts have warned of the dangers of “super microbes” that cannot easily be treated with commonly available antibiotics. Pervasive misuse and excessive consumption of antibiotics in both human and animals are the main factors accelerating the rise of antibiotic resistance, leading us towards a post-antimicrobial era to which we have no answer for.

Antibiotic or antimicrobial resistance (AMR) may seem to be a subtle threat as its impacts are not always immediately evident. But its potential consequences are real and frightening. Drug resistant microbes could cause up to 10 million deaths by 2050, and up to US$100 trillion a year in economic costs. Asian economies also constitute some of the biggest producers and consumers of antibiotics and it doesn’t look like that will change any time soon.

The bacteria Streptococcus suis is one example. The bacteria is usually a parasite in pigs, but can also harm humans. Infection can result in severe disease, with mortality between 3–18% and hearing loss in up to 88% of survivors. It is probable that exposure to pigs and uncooked pork products are the main risk factors according to the World Health Organization.

In Vietnam’s Thau Thien Hue province, Dr. Pham Hoang Son Hung and his team at Hue University of Agriculture and Forestry conducted a study on the antimicrobial susceptibility of Streptococcus suis isolated from pigs with respiratory infections. Dr. Hoang, a veterinarian, is one of four scientists that received a travel award from the Southeast Asia One Health University Network to present his study during the Global Health Institute’s 3rd Research Conference of Emerging Disease at the Convergence of Animal, Human and Environmental Health, held recently in Thailand’s northern Chiang Mai province.

Dr. Pham Hoang Son Hung discusses his work One Health-oriented studies.

As one of the active members of the Vietnam One Health University Network, Dr. Hoang learned about the conference and took advantage of the SEAOHUN travel awards to attend the international conference, deliver presentations and share updated knowledge and experience. Of the four recipients, two were from Vietnam and the other two from Malaysia. The award recipients included both students and working professionals from medical and veterinary science.

“The cheaper the antibiotics are, the easier the farmers can buy and the more these drugs can pose risk to animal health and ours eventually. That’s why One Health has to be taken into consideration,” he said.

His research found the bacteria to be highly resistant to the common antibiotics trimethoprim, sulfamethoxazole, penicillin, and erythromycin. The results also described the use of cefotaxime and oxacillin in the prevention and treatment of Streptococcus suis disease in pig farms in Thua Thien Hue and other provinces.

The first reports of human Streptococcus suis infection were in Hong Kong in 1984 and cases have subsequently been reported in Japan, Thailand and Vietnam. However, it was not until a large outbreak in Sichuan province, China in 2005 that interest in this pathogen grew. Streptococcus suis is now recognized as a major cause of bacterial meningitis in Southeast Asia. Despite this, the burden of the bacteria is probably under-estimated since clinical awareness is low and many smaller hospitals do not possess a microbiology service.

Dr. Hoang’s presentation described his research team’s experience of rapidly influencing the development of national guidelines through a partnership with an influential national institute and an external academic group. He hoped the results of his study would help promote the rationale use of antibiotics among pig farming in Vietnam as antibiotics are cheap and easy to access in his country. Regulations or standards to control antibiotic use in animal farming are not yet fully set in place.

About the Author

Apiradee Treerutkuarkul is a communications specialist with the South East Asia One Health University Network (SEAOHUN), a network supported by the USAID One Health Workforce project.

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