In a historic agreement, world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly vowed on Wednesday, Sept. 21, to strengthen efforts against the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

At the same time, the United Nations elevated the antibiotic resistance crisis on par with health issues such as AIDS and Ebola — the fourth time in the organization's entire history.

Dr. Keiji Fukuda of the World Health Organization (WHO) says the declaration recognizes that we have a global problem, and there's commitment to take action.

Global Crisis

Doctors have long been giving out warnings about the dangers of antibiotic resistance, which occurs when viruses, bacteria, parasites and fungi adapt to drugs that were previously used to combat them.

Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that more than 2 million residents in the United States get sick due to antibiotic resistance infections. Of that number, 23,000 patients die as a result.

Diseases that are considered as common, including pneumonia, tuberculosis and urinary tract infections, are becoming more difficult to treat, while new superbugs are emerging, the CDC said.

The Core Of The Problem

Experts say that one particularly concerning aspect of the issue is its link to animal agriculture.

Companies and farmers often use antibiotics not only to treat sick animals, but to maintain them on a steady diet to prevent illnesses or allow them to grow more quickly.

"Antibiotic resistance has immense economic consequences and immense implications for food," says Fukuda.

Because of this, advocacy groups have been pushing the government to crack down and regulate how farmers make use of these drugs.

Furthermore, according to a report in the United Kingdom, if nothing is done about the current antibiotic resistance crisis, it would cost the world about $100 trillion by 2050.

Taking Action

The declaration on Wednesday requires countries to prepare their own two-year plan to protect the effectiveness of antibiotics.

Countries need to come up with ways to monitor antibiotic use in both agriculture and medicine, begin curbing the use and develop new antibiotics that work.

In two years, the U.N. secretary-general will evaluate each country's plan and check whether there is any progress.

Laura Kahn, a research scholar at Princeton University, says the best chance at fighting antibiotic resistance is international cooperation.

“It's a major global problem, involving humans, animals, and the environment,” she says.

Kahn adds that because all these issues are linked, the only way to manage the problem is by addressing issues in an interdisciplinary way.

Photo: Umberto Salvagnin | Flickr

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