Hardly anyone dies from pneumonia anymore. Or malaria. Or tuberculosis. Diseases that used to spell certain death are now contained with relative ease through the magic of antibiotics and antimalarials. Magic which we have been taking for granted.
When we use these medicines more than we need to, for example, to treat a cold or to pre-emptively feed our cattle to promote growth, our bodies — or the bodies of the livestock in question — act as a sort of filter for antimicrobial resistance. That is to say, the antibiotic kills all of the weaker bacteria and leaves only the strongest bacteria alive; bacteria that now has the skills to fight the antibiotic in the future, making it useless.
Antimicrobial resistance is already everywhere and has been found on every continent. In fact, a report published by the OECD estimated that these “superbugs” already kill at least 700,000 people a year, a toll which will rise to 10 million by 2050 if we continue to be as frivolous. This means that old diseases, ones that we have not thought of as dangerous for decades, could be the very things to kill millions in the near future.
The same OECD report looked at what would happen if we do not tackle the impending catastrophe appropriately. Not only would more people die from antimicrobial resistance than from cancer today, but conservative estimates show that it will cost us all 100 trillion USD, a price tag that does not include indirect costs such as the the negative effects on the productivity of families and communities of sick individuals — individuals who will be sicker for longer, even if they do live.
Steps we all should take
The report highlighted ten interventions, the first of which is a massive, global public awareness campaign. This is because antimicrobial resistance is not just for farmers, policy makers, researchers and hospitals to handle; a huge part of the responsibility lies with us, the public. We are the ones who demand medicines that we do not need from our physicians, and we are the ones who do not inquire about the status of the meat on our plate. We must begin to care about the fact that very few financial incentives exist for the creation of new drugs and the improvement of already existing ones. We must take our vaccinations more seriously because they lower the risk of infection and reduce the use of antimicrobials. We can begin to do tackle antimicrobial resistance by simply having an open dialogue with our health care professionals. and ask:
“Do I really need this medication?”
Antibiotics do not fight viral infections (like colds and the flu): they can only fight bacterial infections and therefore make sure we are taking them for the right infections.
“Are there simpler options?”
Antibiotics do not treat everything: sometimes all that’s needed is time, rest, and drinking plenty of liquid.
“How do I appropriately take this medication?”
If you are prescribed a medicine, make sure that you always finish the prescription, even after you start feeling better. Never share your medications and never save them for a future illness.
“How can I prevent getting an infection altogether?”
Practicing good hand hygiene and ensuring to get recommended vaccines can prevent the acquisition of bacterial infections, thus preventing the need for antibiotics.
“What else can I do?”
If you would like to do more to support the fight against antimicrobial resistance, you can write to politicians and decision makers to urge them to act against the abuse of antibiotics, especially in the agriculture sector and to support the development of new drugs for human and animal use.
We must help build a global coalition. As the OECD report states: “AMR is not a problem that can be solved by any one country, or even any one region. We live in a connected world where people, animals and food travel, and microbes travel with them.” We got into this mess together, and only together can we get out of it.
Click here for the rest of the report, and to learn about the other interventions listed.
Dr. Moriah Ellen, is a Senior Lecturer in Jerusalem College of Technology, Lev Academic Center.