WOOSTER, Ohio — Jeffrey LeJeune, a scientist with Ohio State University, has started a three-month assignment in Rome to work with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization to combat antibiotic resistance.
The FAO recruited LeJeune, head of the Food Animal Health Research Program in the university’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences, to provide technical advice and to help launch and coordinate several of the initiatives outlined in a U.N. declaration on antibiotic resistance.
LeJeune participated in a U.N. gathering Sept. 21 when the entire assembly signed a political declaration requiring countries to create national plans to fight antibiotic resistance in medicine, agriculture and the environment.
The plans will be based on a blueprint on antimicrobial resistance developed in 2015 by the FAO, the U.N.’s World Health Organization and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE).
“It’s a big task, but it’s exciting. It happened really fast,” LeJeune said. Within a year of expressing interest in the project, he was asked to join the team.
With the Sept. 21 commitment from the U.N., the FAO is ready to go from planning to implementation, and that’s where LeJeune will help.
LeJeune, a veterinarian and a microbiologist, has long been involved with an interdisciplinary group at Ohio State focusing on antibiotic resistance with a “One Health” approach to the problem, tackling it from the standpoints of human, animal and environmental health.
The team has representatives from colleges across campus at Ohio State: CFAES, the College of Veterinary Medicine, the College of Medicine, the College of Pharmacy, the College of Nursing and the College of Public Health.
“You can’t just look at antimicrobial resistance as a medical problem or a veterinary problem. It’s all linked, and you have to understand all of the underlying causes of antibiotic resistance in order to get a handle on control strategies,” LeJeune said.
“This is a global problem. We’re not going to solve it independently,” said LeJeune.
While with the FAO, LeJeune anticipates working with nations that have developed plans to work on antimicrobial resistance to make sure their plans are aligned with their capabilities and there are systems for monitoring and evaluation in place.
Different nations are at different levels of adopting programs to control antimicrobial use in agriculture, he said.
He expects to begin working with nations that have the least control measures in place, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Southeast Asia. He will provide technical support and input and serve as a liaison for those countries to the FAO.
After two years, the U.N. secretary-general will gauge each country’s progress.
The Sept. 21 gathering was only the fourth time the U.N. has convened to address a health issue, following action on Ebola in 2014, noncommunicable diseases in 2011 and HIV/AIDS in 2001.
Antibiotics and similar drugs, collectively known as antimicrobial agents, have been around for 70 years. But because they’ve been used so extensively, organisms have built up resistance to the drugs, rendering them less effective — a problem considered by many to be the world’s most pressing public-health concern.
LeJeune’s laboratory has been working on understanding the ecology and mechanisms of how antibiotic resistance is spread, from bacteria to bacteria, from farm to farm, and around the world.
Researchers there also study how farm management practices affect disease transmission, including the tracking of wildlife such as birds, which are known to transmit antibiotic-resistant organisms, from one farm to another.
LeJeune’s lab has also explored how bacteriophages — viruses that infect bacteria — can transmit antibiotic resistance from one bacterium to another, and it is developing educational materials to help agricultural workers protect themselves.
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