What do tuberculosis, infected cuts, and the bubonic plague have in common? All of them are caused by bacteria, and, until the invention of antibiotics in 1924, bacterial infections spelled a death sentence for the young and elderly. Now, we are able to ingest a pill full of antibiotics, and, for the most part, we become safe from infections. However, in the future, we might not be so fortunate.
Antibiotic resistance is on the rise, and these bacteria resistant superbugs kill 700,000 people annually. That’s almost 2,000 a day. Caused by natural selection in overuse of antibiotics in agriculture, sanitation, and medicine, certain strains of E. Coli and Neisseria gonorrhoeae bacteria have evolved to develop immunity to common antibiotics.
Until now, there hasn’t been a global response to superbugs. But on September 21st, the United Nations General Assembly convened to discuss how to tackle the growing issue of superbugs in public health. This marked the fourth time the UN General Assembly has ever met over a health issue. The outcomes were quite remarkable —all 193 countries of the UN signed a declaration that promised each country would outline a plan to prevent the proliferation of antibiotic resistant bacteria in medicine, agriculture, and the environment.
This declaration has been criticized for being a token agreement since it did not include any concrete minimum numbers for reducing the overuse of antibiotics. Critics are also unhappy with the lack of specifics in the declaration. For an issue that encompasses a variety of sectors, the UN agreement is unusually quiet on how countries will pay for changes in health care or changes in how meat will be exported. Moreover, politicians from developing countries question whether the resolution will disproportionately affect their nations in which, without modern sanitation, the frequent use of antibiotics remains one of the only options to combat illness in humans and agriculture alike.
However, a united global effort against superbugs is the critical first step needed. With consensus from global powers such as China, Germany, and the United States, countries will follow in turn. In fact, G7 and G20 members in their respective summits agreed to even stronger terms to combat superbugs, and a pact of the thirteen largest antibiotic manufacturers agreed to plan to reduce the global overuse of antibiotics. With an FDA ban on the three most common antibiotics in antibacterial soap earlier in September, the US will further lessen the likelihood of further superbug emergence.
Although the declaration doesn’t immediately put regulations into motion, unanimous agreement from the UN puts pressure on the world to act. Individual countries can hammer out the specifics of how it will affect healthcare and farms and tailor to their needs. Industrialized nations in North America and Europe can cut the most while other countries can try to stop the ballooning usage of antibiotics. If the world unites in recognition of this growing threat, we can make sure the past stays behind us and move towards a healthier future.