Michael Omodo: Studying drug resistance in animals

World Antimicrobial Awareness Week 2020

Fleming Fund Fellowships support training and capacity building for scientists, epidemiologists and clinicians in over 20 countries across Africa and Asia. In Uganda, Fleming Fellow Michael Omodo is studying bacteria that move between humans and animals to understand how best to tackle resistance.

Uganda’s National Animal Health Laboratory sits right next to Entebbe airport, facing Lake Victoria. Mango trees, wild monkeys and the occasional bird are randomly peppered around the laboratory’s campus which is getting a huge face-lift, thanks to investment from the Fleming Fund. The buildings are being renovated, new state-of-the-art equipment is being installed and some of the staff are receiving on-going mentorship and training from global animal health experts as part of the Fleming Fund Fellowship programme.

In one of the rooms, Michael Omodo, is busy with a team of researchers preparing for an influx of samples from his Fellowship project. Michael is a laboratory scientist with a background in animal health and has been working for Uganda’s Ministry of Agriculture for nearly 10 years. He and his colleagues from the Fellowship programme are being mentored by experts from the University of Edinburgh and are starting work on their final collaborative project. The Fellows, comprised of human and animal health specialists, are planning to gather some 9000 samples from livestock and people across Uganda to demonstrate how resistant bacteria transfers between humans and animals. The ultimate goal, he explains, is to ensure the data and report are of sufficient quality for policy making as it’s only through regulation the country can curb antibiotic misuse (which leads to drug resistance).

Throughout the world, more antibiotics are used in animal rearing than in human health. However, these drugs are often used in prevention rather than treatment, leading to resistance. As resistant bacteria can spread between humans, animals and the environment, curbing drug misuse and overuse in animals is critical to tackling resistance as a whole.

Michael’s interest in studying antibiotic resistance comes from direct experience of drug misuse in animals. “For every decision in life there is always a driving factor behind that choice,” he says, explaining that his uncle was the impetus behind his study.

“My uncle lives in our village and he owns cattle, goats and chickens. The first time one of his animals fell sick, he consulted a veterinary doctor. They told him what to do and he bought the drugs. But the second time, because he thought he knew everything, he treated his animals without consulting a veterinarian. A little while back I went to see him, and I saw him injecting his animals with stronger drugs – but they didn’t work, and he lost some of his animals. I told him I’d take samples for him and test them in the lab, and I found the pathogens in the animals were resistant to the drugs.”

Unfortunately, this is a common story for many farmers in Uganda. According to the country’s own analysis on antibiotic resistance, antibiotics are frequently used as prophylaxis and as additives in animal feed. Tetracycline and penicillin are the most common antibiotics used, but farmers rarely consult veterinary services and few laboratories are available to analyse samples from sick animals.

A lack of veterinarians and laboratory analysis services mean that AMR surveillance in animals is also rare. Across the country there is less investment in supporting animal health services than human health services. And surveillance efforts in animals are primarily targeted at viruses or diseases which cause the most harm in animals. For example, foot and mouth disease in livestock, can cause lameness, a significant reduction in milk production and occasionally death in animals, but does not easily transfer to humans. In contrast, animals carrying E. coli bacteria may show no signs of illness, yet dairy and meat products, contaminated by faeces from that animal could cause sickness in humans.

The Fleming Fund’s investment in Uganda aims to tackle these issues by boosting surveillance of antibiotic use and resistance (starting in chickens). Additionally, investments in training and laboratory equipment will allow staff to gather samples and analyse data, to develop a national picture of drug resistance in chickens. Michael says these investments will make a huge difference and will give the laboratory and resulting surveillance data enormous credibility. The challenge now, for both Michael and others in the laboratory, is to convince policy makers to turn their hard-earned evidence into action and enact regulations to curb misuse of antibiotics in farming.

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