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The United Nations Declares War on Superbugs


With the constant news of terror attacks, devastating civil wars, or even just political debates, our world seems irreconcilably divided. So when there is a problem so large that 193 countries agree to fight it together, you know it must be bad. The giant problem the UN General Assembly addressed this year at a High-Level Meeting has a microscopic source—antibiotic resistant bacteria.  

Even if you’ve never heard the term “antibiotic resistant”, you’ve probably heard of “superbugs.” Much like the name implies, these bacteria have a unique ability: they can survive antibiotic treatment that most other bacteria cannot. These superbugs aren’t new species; they evolved from strains of previously non-resistant bacteria.  Diseases we were once able to treat, such as tuberculosis, gonorrhea, and pneumonia have become deadly because the bacteria that cause them can now survive all antibiotic treatments.

Bacteria Under a Microscope Image Source: Flickr via Umberto Salvagnin
Bacteria Under a Microscope Image Source: Flickr via Umberto Salvagnin

The origin of superbugs can be traced to the  misuse of antibiotics in both the developing and developed world. Misuse includes needlessly using antibiotics or not using them as directed. For developed countries like the United States, overprescription of antibiotics is one of the biggest problems. It is estimated that at least 30% of antibiotic prescriptions are unnecessary. Some illnesses aren’t caused by bacteria (like flu—caused by a virus), so antibiotics are not an appropriate treatment. The symptoms of these illnesses can be similar to those of bacterial infections, leading doctors to prescribe antibiotics to satisfy patients desperately seeking a remedy. These unwarranted prescriptions only provide more opportunities for antibiotic resistant bacteria to develop. For a review on how bacteria populations become resistant to antibiotics, see this article in the Athens Science Observer.

Image Source: Flickr via Iqbal Osman
Image Source: Flickr via Iqbal Osman

In rapidly developing countries such as China, the expanding middle class’s newfound taste for meat is leading to massive antibiotic use in agriculture to prevent disease from spreading through herds or to speed up animal growth.  China fed agricultural animals nearly three times as many antibiotics as the US in 2012. Projected antibiotic use in Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa is expected to grow 7 times faster than the human population over the next 15 years due to the increased use in agriculture. Farmers using antibiotics to accelerate animal growth is equivalent to a doctor prescribing antibiotics for the flu. Any superbugs that arise in animals as a result can be passed to humans through contact with the animal, its feces, or through improperly cooked meat. 

New antibiotics aren’t being created fast enough to combat the rate at which bacteria become resistant in both human and animal population.—in fact, only two new classes of antibiotics have made it to the market in the past 50 years. One of the main alternatives to antibiotic use is vaccination.

“Widespread use of vaccines that target bacteria could prevent people from contracting diseases in the first place”

Widespread use of vaccines that target bacteria could prevent people from contracting diseases in the first place. Lower infection rates will reduce the demand for antibiotics. Vaccination strategies have been successful in preventing meningitis C and Haemophilus influenzae Type B in the United Kingdom  and United States, and subsequently the use of antibiotics to treat those diseases has declined. The solution, however, is not that simple. vaccines take up to 10 years to develop and test in clinical trials and even longer to reach the market place. The lack of development of new antibiotics and vaccines coupled with the continued use of current antibiotics has caused antibiotic resistance to become a major threat to human health.

Nations all over the world have experienced devastation wreaked by these superbugs, including an estimated 700,000 deaths every year. Economists predict that the cost of the superbugs could amount to 100 trillion US dollars from loss of labor force alone. This estimate does not include healthcare or social costs.The economic impact of superbugs is so great that it could derail the UN’s sustainable development goals designed to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all.

Image Source: Flickr via United Nations Photos
Image Source: Flickr via United Nations Photos

Realizing we’re headed off the path to reach a sustainable future, the UN is taking steps to change course. In September the members of  United Nations General Assembly met to design a global, multipronged approach to combat the antibiotic resistance crisis. While the UN General Assembly meets every year to discuss a variety of topics, this was only the fourth High-Level meeting in General Assembly history to address a health topic—acknowledging antibiotic resistance as a health threat as serious as Ebola and HIV/AIDS. At the meeting, the members of the general assembly and relevant institutions committed to fund the development of novel antibiotics and vaccines, to educate the public about proper use, and to regulate sales and use for both humans and animals. Doctors, veterinarians, farmers, economists and consumers must collaborate in order for this approach to be successful.

Even though the antibiotic resistance  is a problem that needs a global solution, we as individuals can contribute to the fight. We can:

  1. Educate ourselves about common diseases to make sure we are being treated with antibiotics only when a bacterial infection demands it.
  2. Take antibiotics as prescribed and finish the course even when we’re feeling better
  3. Follow proper meat handling and cooking procedures to avoid contracting resistant bacteria from our food.

If we all play our part, we can win the war against superbugs.

About the Author

Megan Prescott is a Ph.D candidate in the Department of Microbiology at the University of Georgia. She dedicates her time outside the lab to serving as President of UGA’s Women in Science (WiSci) organization, volunteering with the Junior League of Athens, and continuously watching The Office on Netflix. She counts each day she leaves the lab without giving herself TB as a success. More from Megan Prescott.

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