Countries from around the world agreed Wednesday to take concerted efforts to tackle the growing threat of superbugs — drug-resistant pathogens that could turn back the clock on modern medical practice.
In a special high-level meeting, the UN General Assembly approved by acclamation a resolution calling for the world to combat antimicrobial resistance.
“We are losing our ability to protect people and animals from life-threatening infections,’’ UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said at the opening of the day-long meeting.
Dr. Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organization, called antimicrobial resistance “a serious threat to human health, development and security.”
Chan said the commitment countries are making needs to be turned into rapid and effective action. “Hurry up,” she said.
This is only the fourth time a health concern has been a topic of debate at the UN General Assembly. The last time was in 2014, when Ebola was racing through the West African countries of Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.
The resolution commits countries to develop action plans for addressing the threat. Experts have noted there will not be a-one-size-fits-all solution.
But raising public awareness of the need to use the drugs judiciously, taking steps to prevent infections by improving sanitation and hygiene, as well as using existing vaccines and developing new ones will be cornerstones of the effort.
Radical change of the use of antibiotics in agriculture will also be needed. The majority of medically important antibiotics — the ones used to treat infections in both people and animals — are used in agriculture and aquaculture.
The drugs are used not only to treat or prevent infections in animals, but to promote growth — a practice that should be phased out immediately, José Graziano da Silva, the director general of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, told the meeting.
In the United States, it is estimated that 70 percent of antibiotic use is in the food animal and farmed fish sector.
Concern about resistance has been around as long as antibiotics have. Alexander Fleming, the Scottish pharmacologist who discovered the first antibiotic — penicillin — warned that its misuse would teach microbes how to evade the drug.
In recent years, more and more bacteria have been acquiring that capacity, creating concern that the world is facing a post-antibiotic era, where medical procedures such as cancer chemotherapy, hip replacements, or Cesarean-section births may become too dangerous to undertake.
It is estimated that 23,000 people in the United States die each year from antibiotic-resistant infections; globally the toll is estimated at 700,000.
But a landmark report on the threat of antimicrobial resistance published in May estimated that figure could rise to 10 million a year by 2050 if the problem isn’t addressed.
The report, commissioned by the British government and written by noted economist Jim O’Neill, estimated the cost of inaction on antimicrobial resistance would be $100 trillion over that time frame.
Scientists and others concerned about antimicrobial resistance see the UN resolution as a key step in addressing the problem, saying it makes it clear this isn’t just a human health problem, but an economic threat that requires swift and concerted action.