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Health

Hidden Threat as 'Big as Climate Change' Needs 'Urgent Global Response'

Why Global Citizens Should Care
Unless we act now, antimicrobial resistance could kill 10 million people a year by 2050 — and the UK health secretary has called for an “urgent global response” as he launched a new strategy to combat the threat in Britain. Take action here to support health systems in the world’s poorest countries.

What’s more scary: the monster you already know lies under the bed — or the monster you never see coming?

For many of us, climate change is one of the biggest threats faced by humanity. But slinking just out of sight, there are other dangers that could be even more catastrophic without urgent political action.

Antimicrobial resistance ranks right up there with the most dangerous threats on the planet.

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Antibiotics like penicillin are used to kill dangerous bacteria and treat infections; but your body gets smart if you overuse them, and can start to build defences.. That means you develop a natural resistance, and the antibiotics grow less effective.

So when doctors prescribe antibiotics where they might not be needed, it can present a much bigger problem. Already, superbugs are killing thousands in the UK alone. But if the present trend continues, a simple graze on your knee could lead to an infection that could kill you.

And sometimes you consume antibiotics without even realising; for example, when you eat meat. Most animals are reared for food production with a daily dose of antibiotics — indeed, half of all antibiotics produced around the world are used on animals, not humans. 

It helps them put on weight and avoid disease. But, silently, invisible resistance starts to develop that could eventually “spell the end to modern medicine,” according to England’s chief medical officer.

That’s why the British government has come up with a new strategy to cut antibiotic use, reduce the prevalence of superbugs, and change how drug companies develop new medicines.

The five-year plan pledges to cut the use of antibiotics in humans by 15% over the next five years; reduce antibiotic use in animals by 25% from 2016 to 2020; and have antimicrobial resistance under control by 2040, according to the BBC.

It also changes how drugs are priced, so companies are incentivised to sell drugs based on their value to the National Health Service (NHS) rather than purely the quantity exchanged.

Right now, companies make more money the more antibiotics they sell — a “market failure” that the government says isn’t future-facing.

“Imagine a world without antibiotics,” UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock is set to say at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Thursday. “Where treatable infections become untreatable, where routine surgery like a hip operation becomes too risky to carry out, and where every wound is potentially life-threatening.”

“What would go through your mind if your child cut their finger and you knew there was no antibiotic left that could treat an infection?” he will add. “This was the human condition until almost a century ago. I don’t want it to be the future for my children — yet it may be unless we act.”

A 2016 report by economist Jim O’Neill, commissioned by David Cameron while he was the UK prime minister, predicted that antimicrobial resistance could kill 10 million people and cost the world £69 trillion every year by 2050.

Indeed, 2,000 people already die from drug-resistant infections a year in the UK, according to the Guardian, while 20% of antibiotics are reportedly prescribed inappropriately.

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However, the BBC reports that the government aims to cut those infections by 10% (5,000 a year) before 2025 — and stop 15,000 patients from contracting infections as a result of their healthcare.

“Each and every one of us benefits from antibiotics, but we all too easily take them for granted, and I shudder at the thought of a world in which their power is diminished,” Hancock is expected to say. “Antimicrobial resistance is as big a danger to humanity as climate change or warfare. That’s why we need an urgent global response.”

The world knows the monster is well on its way — but with the right plan, and the political will to put it into action, there’s an opportunity here to stop it before it gets close.