On September 21, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly passed a declaration aimed at slowing the spread of antibiotic-resistant superbugs, calling it “historical” and “a turning point.”

The World Health Organization’s (WHO) Dr. Keiji Fukada said:

“I think the declaration will have very strong implications. What it will convey is that there’s recognition that we have a big problem and there’s a commitment to do something about it.”

At the meeting in New York City, top UN leaders successfully urged governments to sign the political declaration to tackle the problem of antibiotic resistance both globally and in their own countries. UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, addressed the threat in stark terms, telling attendees:

“We are losing our ability to protect both people and animals from life-threatening infections. It’s a very present reality.” [2]

Margaret Chan, director of the World Health Organization, echoed the secretary general’s assessment, adding:

“Over the past half century only two new classes of antibiotics reached the market with few replacement products in the pipeline. The world is headed to a post-antibiotic era in which infections, especially those caused by gram-negative bacteria, will kill.”

It’s a complex problem fueled by a variety of things, including the overuse of antibiotics vital to human health in livestock. But Chan singled out another challenge, one that gets less press than antibiotic overuse: the need for new antibiotics, and drug companies’ reluctance to create them due to their lack of profitability.

Chan said the way to sweeten the pot for pharmaceutical companies is to offer them financial incentives. Chan is not the first person to propose the idea, of course; in May, renowned economist Jim O’Neill said the very same thing in an 84-page report, Review on Antimicrobial Resistance.

What The Declaration Means

The declaration, approved at the meeting early on September 21, calls for the creation of aninteragency coordination group to initiate future action in this area. It also requires countries todevelop a 2-year plan to protect the potency of antibiotics. At the end of those 2 years, Ki-moon will assess each country’s plan and check to make sure each is making progress.

The secretary general wants each country to take some specific actions, including:

  • Slashing antibiotic use in livestock, where the medications are given to animals to promote growth and prevent disease.
  • Limiting the use of antibiotics in humans – they should only be prescribed when they are absolutely necessary.
  • Increasing education about antibiotic resistance.
  • Greater monitoring of superbugs, so scientists have a grasp on the scope of the problem.
  • Safeguarding their current antibiotic stockpile.

The declaration states that without action, “there will be fewer options for the protection of people most vulnerable to serious life-threatening infections, especially women giving birth, newborns, patients with certain chronic diseases or those undergoing chemotherapy or surgery.”

Ultimately, the leaders said, they would like to see people take the following actions to help prevent the crisis from turning into a death sentence for millions:

  • Get available vaccines to prevent illness
  • Stop asking their doctor for antibiotics when they have the cold or flu (antibiotics treat neither)
  • Urge their political leaders to commit to action in combating antibiotic resistance.

Fukada said:

“I think this is the first realistic chance, in our lifetime, to turn this around.” [1]

Past Success

Fukada has reason to be optimistic.

In 2001, the UN made a similar declaration concerning the HIV pandemic. Ramanan Laxminarayan, who directs the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy in Washington, D.C., said the declaration was largely successful in curbing the spread of the virus around the world.

The declaration made countries take responsibility for the HIV burden.

People were willing to start talking about and change their attitudes on stigma. And last but not least, the declaration made sure that lots of money went towards both treatment and prevention.”

He went on:

“Am I optimistic? I certainly am. In fact, we don’t have a choice. We have to do better than we’re doing right now because tens of thousands of people are now dying around the world, particularly newborns. And this is surely getting worse year by year.”

Time To Get Serious

bacteria in petri dishes

Superbugs kill an estimated 700,000 each year, according to a recent report on this issue commissioned by the British government. If world leaders, doctors, and patients don’t take the matter seriously and work to reverse it, that number could increase to 10 million people by the year 2050. [3]

Antibiotic-resistant infections also have the potential to wreak financial havoc on the world. This week, the World Bank Group predicted that the economic damage inflicted by antibiotic resistance will slash between 1% and 3.8% of global domestic product by 2050. In other words, as much, if not more than, the 2008 financial crisis.

Said World Bank president Jim Yong Kim:

“The scale and nature of this economic threat could wipe out hard-fought development gains and take us away from our goals of ending extreme poverty.

We must urgently change course to avert this potential crisis.”

This article originally appeared at Natural Society.


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