TIME medicine

Superbugs Are a ‘Major Global Threat’

World leaders make unprecedented commitment at the U.N. to battle drug-resistant bacteria

Global leaders gathered here at the U.N. headquarters on Wednesday for a high-level meeting on antimicrobial resistance, with multiple leaders speaking out about the growing threat of infections that no longer respond to the drugs used to treat them.

The meeting was part of the U.N. General Assembly (UNGA). It’s only the fourth time in history that the heads of state have met to discuss a health issue, but the urgency of the current crisis of drug-resistant bacteria is clear: it’s estimated that the number of people who die from antibiotic resistance infections will reach 10 million a year in 2050.

“It’s not that it may happen in the future, it’s a very present reality,” said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. He added that over 20,000 newborn children are expected to die each year from infections that do not respond to antibiotics. Resistance to HIV drugs is also on the rise, and leaders are concerned about the potential for malaria-drug resistance.

Antimicrobial resistance, often referred to as AMR, “is a major global threat. Some scientists call it a slow-motion tsunami. The situation is bad and getting worse,” said Dr. Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organization (WHO). Chan says sexually transmitted diseases like gonorrhea are becoming increasingly resistant to treatment.

Leaders from Thailand, Belgium, Guyana, Switzerland, Zimbabwe and more spoke about the need for action that targets a variety of sectors including medicine, agriculture and drug and diagnostic developers. Chan underlined the lack of drug development and discovery by the pharmaceutical industry — which is not incentivized to develop said drugs because their margins are small.

As part of the meeting, leaders solidified their commitment to develop action plans for their countries. Whether those commitments will translate into tangible action is yet to be seen. Efforts may include bolstering surveillance systems that monitor drug-resistant infections as well as antibiotic use in medicine and farming. Nations can encourage the judicious use of antibiotic prescribing and urge antibiotics only be used in animals to treat infections. WHO’s Chan also called on the public to not demand antibiotics for ailments like colds, for which they are unnecessary.

Global health and agriculture groups like the WHO and the Food and Agriculture Organization were called upon to collaborate on the issue with multiple stakeholders and report back on efforts at the U.N. General Assembly in 2018.

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