Act now to tame the superbugs that are killing 700,000 a year
The UN general assembly recognised drug-resistant infections last year as one of the greatest threats facing humanity. And in May, G20 leaders called for national action plans by the end of 2018 – plans set in train by the World Health Organisation in 2015. But we have already lost momentum. Commitments are the first step, but nothing will be achieved if we don’t translate them into action.
Analysis by Wellcome and the UN Foundation shows, encouragingly, that 151 of 195 countries are developing a plan. However, only half address the threat across human and animal health and the environment, and only one in five commit to reducing antibiotic use, improving hygiene and preserving antibiotics of last resort. Most tellingly, only 5% are adequately funded and monitored by the governments responsible for them.
And we still suffer from too few new antibiotics in development. CARB-X is a new partnership supporting 18 new potential treatments, but progress is still slow. If we want our grandchildren to benefit from antibiotics, as we have, we need more investment.
Meanwhile, the superbugs are progressing rapidly. Since the UN declaration, they have killed about 700,000 people worldwide. In Nevada in 2016, a 70-year-old woman died after breaking her leg, which later became infected with a superbug resistant to 26 antibiotics. In South Africa, multidrugresistant TB is spreading. In the UK, untreatable strains of gonorrhoea are on the rise.
Politicians and scientists have an urgent role to play but they cannot solve the problem alone. Tackling drug-resistant infection is everyone’s business. The threat transcends that of HIV, TB and cancer. To achieve real progress, those already suffering from untreatable infections need a voice. So far they have been too quiet.
That is why Wellcome, with the UN Foundation, UK, Thai and Ghanaian governments, is hosting a global call to action in Berlin this week. We have to make our response to this global threat move faster and with more focus.
As we do so, we must also put our energy into the other great challenge with regard to antibiotics: access. Around 385,000 babies will be born today across the globe. Tragically, almost half of them will die before they reach 28 days of age. Those first weeks of life are incredibly fragile, and infants born into the world’s poorest communities are at greatest risk – although advances in global health have led, in the 25 years to 2015, to death rates in neonates dropping from 5.1 million to 2.7 million a year.
Antibiotics could save so many more. Globally, one in 10 newborns dies from pneumonia or sepsis, deaths preventable with better access to existing antibiotics and better control of the spread of drug-resistant infections.
In recent years, warnings of antibiotic resistance, improper and overuse of antibiotics and the dire need for new treatments have become familiar. But what has often been missing from this rhetoric is a focus on improving access to antibiotics to all who need them. This complex mixture of better prescribing twinned with better access is complicated and requires nations to act in a way which fits their needs.
To stop superbugs undermining modern medicine, to prevent lives being lost through lack of access to effective medicines, we must work together. We cannot afford to delay.
Ed Whiting is director of policy and chief of staff at the Wellcome Trust