Taking its place alongside extreme climate change and overpopulation, antibiotic resistance is one of the most pressing threats to the long-term survival of the human race.
In a true testament to the global nature of the problem, all 193 member states of the United Nations have come together to sign an agreement that aims to tackle the rise of antibiotic-resistant “superbugs”, the sort that could lead to a worldwide pandemic.
For decades, antibiotics have been nothing short of a miracle in modern medicine, providing an effective and safe way to treat patients with otherwise fatal bacterial infections. Previously deadly diseases — such as tuberculosis and typhoid — became curable in what many class as a truly golden age of medicine.
Overeager prescription by doctors and widespread use in farming, however, means the number of drugs to which serious diseases are reactive is narrowing all the time.
This new and wide-reaching UN agreement commits each of the member states to a set of aims, looking to reduce the resistance problem and thwart the dangerous reality that lurks over the health horizon. These aims include the encouragement of innovative research into new types of antibiotic, and the increased monitoring and regulation of antibiotic use by both medical professionals and in farming. Increasing public awareness of the sheer gravity of the threat and what they can do to reduce it is also a key tenet.
The President of the 71st session of the UN General Assembly, H.E. Peter Thomson, had these words to say: “Antimicrobial resistance threatens the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals and requires a global response. Member States have today agreed upon a strong Political declaration that provides a good basis for the international community to move forward. No one country, sector or organization can address this issue alone.”
Resistance occurs as a direct result of the driving force of evolution through natural selection. Because bacteria reproduce so quickly and in such huge quantities, the effects of evolution can appear over timescales of years and decades, rather than the hundreds of thousands or millions of years that humans and longer-lived creatures require. A single mutation in a single bacterium that makes it immune to a particular drug means it is more likely to survive and therefore pass on its mutation, producing more like it with the same resistance. Over time, these stronger bacteria become the dominant population, rendering a previously effective antibiotic useless.
The UN cite diseases like pneumonia and gonorrhoea, as well as those that commonly arise from other causes — such as after operations or in people with immunocomprimising conditions like HIV — that could once again become prolific and deadly without this kind of universal intervention.
The introduction of the world’s first real antibiotic was in the 1950s, when penicillin hit the mainstream market. For nearly 70 years, doctors and the public alike have become accustomed to the idea that bacterial infections, even the most serious, are likely curable by modern medicine. It is a scary thought that we could be standing on the precipice of returning to a pre-antibiotic world, but international agreements like this one from the United Nations provide some hope in the fight against one of humanity’s biggest threats.