The UN Assembly convened last week to discuss how to tackle the growing problem of antibiotic resistance. Underscoring the importance of the problem Peter Thompson, President of the General Assembly, stated that: “The future of humanity may depend on our ability to respond to the great challenges of microbial resistance”.
The discovery of antibiotics has added an estimated 20 years to the average person’s life, an advantage we risk losing. Meanwhile, an estimated 700,000 deaths worldwide can be attributed to antibiotic resistant bacteria, set to rise to a potential 10 million by 2050 if changes are not made.
Bacteria are unique in their ability to exchange genes with each other in the form of plasmids (pieces of independent DNA), allowing the fast spread of new mutations that may provide resistance to a particular class of antibiotics. If a bacterium develops a gene mutation that grants resistance towards a particular class of antibiotics then this gene can be quickly transferred throughout a bacterial population, and potentially render an antibiotic class useless. In contrast, humans and animals can only pass genes to their children, so a beneficial mutation does not spread so easily.
One cause of resistance is the over prescription of antibiotics for illnesses where antibiotics are unlikely to have an effect, such as a cold or flu. While the responsibility of prescribing antibiotics lies with the doctors, increasing pressure from patients and a need to keep waiting times down sometimes leads to a quick and easy decision such as prescribing a course of antibiotics.
This practice of over prescription extends to the agriculture industry, where antibiotics are sometimes given as a preventative measure in an attempt to limit the infection rate of livestock. This practice tends to fatten up livestock faster, potentially because their immune system does not need to invest as much energy into fighting off infectious bacteria, and can instead invest the energy into greater growth.
The UN has pledged to create a new group that, in conjunction with the World Health Organisation, will provide practical guidance to each country in how to tackle the growing problem. A report will be commissioned to investigate how best to support pharmaceutical companies in the development of new classes of antibiotics treating resistant strains of bacteria. These can be cost prohibitive due to the large amount of necessary research. The framework will also aim to bolster preventative measures, particularly for developing countries where many common infections are due to poor sanitary conditions.
Unfortunately, these initiatives will take time to develop and adoption by member states may take even longer. However, the UK has already invested £369 million into dealing with antibiotic resistance over the last two years. Alongside this, initial funding pledged following the UN meeting is sitting at approximately £600 million. All things considered, there might still be hope for the rise in resistance to be safely mitigated.
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