The auditor general is urging the federal government and Canada's public health authorities to get serious about the growing threat of drug-resistant infections.

In his spring report, auditor Michael Ferguson says the Public Health Agency of Canada has failed to mobilize its federal, provincial and territorial counterparts in developing a national strategy to deal with so-called antimicrobial resistance.

Ferguson's audit found that the agency collects only limited information on drug-resistant infections at clinics and long-term care facilities, and lacks details about the extent of the problem in remote areas and among vulnerable members of the population.

He also found the agency buys its information about antimicrobial drug use in humans from a private company, and as a result knows little about the scope of the situation.

Farmers import unlicensed drugs

The audit also recommends that Health Canada take additional steps to promote the proper use of the drugs in food animals, which can contribute to antimicrobial resistance.

It says the department should review antimicrobials regularly to determine whether their use as a veterinary treatment increases the risk of the drugs becoming ineffective in humans.

"Already, in hospitals alone, about 18,000 Canadians contract resistant infections every year," Ferguson said in a prepared statement.

"Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada have not done enough to help contain the proliferation of drug-resistant organisms."

On the question of animal use, Health Canada is aware of gaps in the regulations that make it possible for farmers to import unlicensed antimicrobials to use on their own animals, "but the department has not acted to strengthen the control over their importation."

Antimicrobial drugs are used to treat common infections, such as pneumonia, and reduce the risk of serious complications and death, and also allow health professionals to perform organ transplants, joint replacements, and cancer chemotherapy more safely.

Antimicrobial resistance accelerates when antimicrobials are not used at the right dose, frequency, and duration. Infections caused by drug-resistant organisms require lengthier and costlier treatments— some with serious side effects — and carry a higher risk of death.

In 2014, the Public Health Agency of Canada began discussions on a federal framework, but has yet to determine how it will be used to mobilize provinces, territories, and other stakeholders in identifying priority actions and roles.