Antimicrobial resistance: The public health issue that will cost $100 trillion

A nurse administers antibiotics at a hospital in southern Somalia. (Credit: Trócaire/A.Gichigi/Flickr)

NEW YORK — Health and drug experts are raising the alarm about antimicrobial resistance (AMR), one of the world’s most pressing public health issues that, if left unchecked, will cost the world $100 trillion by 2050.

Scientists have been monitoring the rise of drug-resistant infections for years, but AMR moved into the global spotlight after scientists discovered the rise in new strains of bacteria and parasites that are completely resistant to all known drugs.

These so-called superbugs are a ticking time bomb: Antibiotic-resistant infections already kill 700,000 people around the globe each year, and if superbugs continue to proliferate before we develop new drugs to fight them, AMR will cause 10 million deaths by 2050.

Tackling drug-resistant infections globally: The infographics of the Review on AMR

Tackling drug-resistant infections globally. (Credit: Review on Antimicrobial Resistance)

For the first time, world leaders are gathering in New York today to address antimicrobial resistance at a U.N. General Assembly. The U.N. has convened for a health crisis just three other times: for HIV, Ebola and noncommunicable diseases like diabetes and obesity. The meeting is a significant step in the growing effort to combat AMR, since it was still little-known just a few years ago.

“Things don’t usually move so fast, especially not at the U.N.,” said Sweden’s Minister of Health Gabriel Wikström at a separate AMR meeting with other health ministers and pharmaceutical representatives on Tuesday. “But all of us know it must move fast. And we haven’t yet started to catch up with AMR, let alone get ahead.”

Compounding the sense of urgency is that AMR, like most public health issues, has an especially strong impact on poor and marginalized populations.

“Each year, more than 30,000 women and 400,000 newborns die from infections around the time of birth,” said Julie Bishop, Australia’s minister for foreign affairs, at the AMR meeting. “200,000 newborn deaths are from infections that do not respond to available drugs. Most of these deaths occur in low-income countries in situations that will only worsen as antibiotics available for treating infections become less effective.”

Other diplomats and drug experts at the meeting said they found it encouraging to see more global awareness of the threats posed by AMR. Still, spreading awareness seems like a preliminary step in tackling a problem that’s affecting people globally, much like climate change.

The root of the problem is that antibiotics are being misused around the world. Antibiotics are widely used to fatten and prevent infections in livestock, and recent research suggests that at least 30 percent of antibiotics prescribed in the United States are unnecessary. The world needs more new and effective antibiotics, but there is little incentive to research and develop antibiotics when drug companies can’t make an economic case for investing in them.

This is why several initiatives, including the U.K. Review on Antimicrobial Resistance, have proposed financial incentives for drug developers. It will cost an estimated $16 billion globally over the next 10 years to stimulate the development of new antimicrobials and make better use of old ones, which experts consider critical if we are to seriously combat AMR before it causes a global health crisis.

“What we generic companies can do is to improve the drugs that exist,” said Yusuf Hamied, chairman of generic pharmaceutical company CIPLA, at the AMR meeting Tuesday. “The generic companies did this by manufacturing cocktails for HIV, for malaria and TB. I think this could be done, conceivably, for antibiotics as well.”

Today’s meeting of the U.N. General Assembly will undoubtedly raise awareness and, according to a news release by the U.N., help governments justify allocating resources to address AMR. Delegates are expected to talk about solutions such as reducing the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture, discovering new ways to kill bacteria and finding ways to make new drugs economically viable and widely available.

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Lisa is attending U.N. Week as a United Nations Foundation Global Issues Press fellow.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com