Nepal’s wildlife at risk from drug resistance

Nepal must act to save protected species and ecosystems from antimicrobial resistance

PHOTO: KUMAR PAUDEL

Every year antimicrobial resistance (AMR) contributes to the death of around 5 million people around the world. Resistance to antibiotics, once considered ‘miracle drugs’, is fast becoming one of the biggest threats to health and development in Nepal as well.

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) empowers harmful microbes to withstand the very medications designed to stop them from spreading. This means that disease-causing microbes such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites can survive even when we treat them with medicine.

So how are these pathogens getting more resistant? There are many factors, the primary being underuse, overuse or indiscriminate use of antibiotics to treat common infections among humans or livestock.

Introducing medicinal drugs to microorganisms without proper tests and diagnostic trials helps them build resistance and get stronger. As a result, many medicinal drugs have become ineffective because they do not kill the ‘superbugs’. If this keeps up, it will not be long before medicines become ineffective in treating diseases.

AMR is not just a problem for humans, it can affect wildlife as well as the whole ecosystem. Microorganisms resistant to drugs can reach forests and wildlife through air and water. Human-animal interactions can also expose them to these drug-resistant organisms.

Numerous wild animals like elephants, rhinos and wild boars often venture outside Nepal’s protected areas into farmlands to feed. In buffer zones in Chitwan or Bardia, it is common for domestic and wild animals to graze in the same area and use the same water source, this can transfer harmful pathogens to new hosts – the wild animals.

Once livestock is infected with antibiotic resistant microbes, the shared resources in the forest will create a pathway for transmission of diseases among wild animals.

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Even when dealing with known infections, providing medical treatment and care to wild animals poses formidable challenges. This will only be exacerbated when facing infections caused by new superbugs.

The more advanced the infection, the easier it spreads, and lower the chances for it to be treated successfully. The drugs available to treat such diseases will be more limited, and the only option will be to stand back helplessly as wildlife die en masse. By the time new antidotes are tested and delivered, it will be too late, and entire species may be wiped out of their habitats.

The forests of Nepal are home to many globally endangered and rare species, and they are now under huge risk of AMR. Geographical variations in the area means that different animal species share the same habitat, creating opportunities for shared encounters. In such circumstances, infections can swiftly spread infecting entire wildlife populations in the area.

Some habitats in the Tarai region are connected to India, allowing animals to freely cross the border and potentially carry harmful pathogens back and forth, harming the country’s tourism and economy.

It is important to recognise the looming dangers of AMR on Nepal’s wildlife. The first thing is to evaluate the degree of damage drug resistance has inflicted on wildlife populations thus far by conducting nationwide surveys to evaluate the current status of AMR in wildlife. Based on the findings, plans, and policies should be developed and amended as required.

Monitoring of healthcare, medication practices, and overall public health ecosystem is necessary as these are the root causes of AMR.

Education and raising awareness play a huge role in mitigating the risks of AMR. In Nepal, only a small section of the population, mainly those in medical or clinical fields, are familiar with AMR. This lack of awareness among the general population results in the careless misuse of antimicrobials.

A common example would be the use of pesticides by farmers to boost crop yields without considering their detrimental effects on the environment and ecosystem. Similar practices are also common in other sectors such as poultry, fisheries, and animal husbandry. Increased public awareness about the dangers of AMR among communities and individuals would help mitigate the threat.

Achieving this will not be simple, and it cannot be accomplished by one agency alone. It needs a coordinated plan to tackle a huge challenge. Government agencies, lawmakers, research persons, medical personnel, farmers and grassroots workers must take ownership.

A unified commitment to curb increasing AMR will not just save human lives, but also preserve Nepal’s success in nature conservation.

Siddhantha Pandey is a MSc Biotechnology student at Tribhuvan University and a research affiliate at Greenhood Nepal.

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