Antibiotics revolutionized medicine. Professor Alexander Fleming's accidental discovery of Penicillin granted him a Nobel Prize and unleashed the era of antibiotics. Penicillin became a miracle drug and for the first time there was an effective way to treat many of the common infections that were killing millions of people. Most of us have taken antibiotics at one point or another in our lives and it's almost impossible to imagine a world without them.
From 1950 to 1970, the ongoing discovery of new antimicrobials led to the swift development of many new drugs. It was the golden era of antibiotics and they were seen as a panacea. Antibiotics were in many ways a blessing, but the moment we unleashed antibiotics to fight bacteria, antibiotic resistance began.
Since the 70s very few new antibiotics have been discovered and drug resistance has been spreading to a point that approximately 70 per cent of known bacteria have developed some sort of antibiotic resistance. And that's not all. There are now bacteria that are resistant to all known antibiotics! Without urgent action, there is a real risk that we will go back in time to when a simple infection could kill us. Antibiotic resistance is a subset of antimicrobial resistance (AMR), which is much broader. Antimicrobial resistance is becoming an increasingly serious threat to global public health. And this is not only about the problem of abusing antibiotics until they lose their effect--which is already happening. This also has to do with the drugs used to treat diseases such as HIV and malaria which have in their own right posed tremendous public health challenges. Organizations like The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria have made impressive contributions to fight these diseases but it could all be at put at risk if we do not get AMR under control. We need to be careful with these precious, lifesaving commodities. We need to stop the overuse of antibiotics to treat ourselves and doctors have to be much more selective in handing out prescriptions. And it goes beyond humans. We must also be careful with the broad range of antimicrobials used in livestock and agriculture which ultimately ends up in our food and environment.
The only way to deal with this is through a global effort. As with many of the world's challenges, national borders are irrelevant--as are traditional "silo" approaches. Concerted action across the board, from governments to people, from industry to consumers, and from science and academia to policy and education is a must. The global action plan on antimicrobial resistance adopted by governments at the World Health Assembly in May 2015 is the blueprint to guide the necessary action.
It's taken some time for the issue to gain traction since WHO first flagged it as a global public health threat in 2001. However, it's an issue we can no longer afford to ignore.
Governments will have to do their part, but every single one of us has a role to play. If we don't get our act together, AMR could lead to 10 million deaths a year by 2050, with a hefty price tag of $100 trillion! I am sure most people don't even think about antimicrobial additives that have gone into their food and drinks nor do they have this information in front of them.
The best thing we can do is to inform ourselves--using credible sources like WHO, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE)--in order to be better consumers, and try to ensure that our food is produced with minimal antibiotics. But we can also be better patients. We should prevent infections, keeping our immunizations up to date, cooking food properly and washing hands. We should use antibiotics more wisely and only when they are truly needed. Common colds, for example, are caused by a virus and antibiotics have no effect on them, so we should never self-medicate. We are still at a point where we can do something about it. What are we waiting for?