Every year, drug-resistant infections—exacerbated by antibiotic overuse in humans, livestock and agriculture—kill 700,000 people across the globe. If dramatic action isn’t taken soon, a new United Nations report warns, this number could skyrocket, reaching 10 million deaths annually by 2050 and sparking a financial crisis on par with the Great Recession of 2008. Already by 2030, antimicrobial resistance could force 24 million people into extreme poverty.
According to Alex Schwartz of Popular Science, the widespread overuse of antimicrobial medications needed to combat such diseases as tuberculosis, malaria and MRSA has made these infections more resistant to traditional treatment. Examples of misuse include cold or flu sufferers taking antibiotics without realizing that such drugs are incapable of killing viruses and farmers using antibiotics to promote growth or prevent the spread of disease among animals such as chickens, pigs and cows. When microbes come into unnecessary contact with bacteria, they have more chances to adapt to specific strains, increasing the likelihood of genetic mutations that undercut medications' effectiveness.
Crucially, Schwartz writes, the fact that infectious diseases are becoming progressively harder to treat means they’re also more likely to spread easily, particularly in a hospital setting. Thanks to antibiotic misuse, humans are now more susceptible to harmful bacteria transmitted during routine, unrelated medical procedures such as organ transplants, childbirth and chemotherapy.
“This is a silent tsunami,” Haileyesus Getahun, director of the U.N. Interagency Coordination Group on Antimicrobial Resistance—an Ad hoc committee of public health experts, government ministers and industry officials convened in March 2017—tells The New York Times’ Andrew Jacobs. “We are not seeing the political momentum we’ve seen in other public health emergencies, but if we don’t act now, antimicrobial resistance will have a disastrous impact within a generation.”
Drug-resistant infections pose an even greater threat in developing countries. As Jacobs explains, germs thrive in environments lacking clean water and adequate sewage systems. Poverty-stricken individuals are also more likely to purchase counterfeit or low-quality antibiotics from street vendors without understanding the implications of such misuse.
The U.N. group outlines several key recommendations for curbing the spread of drug-resistant pathogens. Among others, these include: regulating the sale of antibiotics sold over-the-counter without a prescription, stopping the use of antibiotics for spurring farm animals’ growth, asking wealthier nations to fund public health improvements in poorer countries, and incentivizing pharmaceutical companies to develop new antibiotics.
Speaking with CNN’s Susan Scutti, Melinda Pettigrew, an epidemiologist at the Yale School of Public Health who was not involved in the research, points toward the report’s emphasis on "one health," or the idea that human, animal and environmental health are all interconnected and should be treated as such. (The approach make sense given that the Centers for Disease Control estimates 6 out of every 10 infectious diseases found in humans were spread from animals.)
Pettigrew concludes, “If we are going to develop successful strategies to reduce the impact and spread of antimicrobial resistance the scientists, clinicians, veterinarians, policymakers, and members of the community will have to work together to address the problem from a One Health perspective.”