The Drug Resistant Killers

Every five minutes a child in Southeast Asia dies from an infection caused by drug-resistant bacteria -- a situation that is likely to get worse.

Antimicrobial resistance, which happens when microorganisms become less susceptible to antibiotics, is making diseases more difficult to contain and harder to cure. Diseases we no longer fear, such as pneumonia and tuberculosis, are re-emerging as major killers, as the tools we use to fight them become less effective.

It's a daunting prospect, one that I have experienced myself. Not so long ago, my daughter, who just entered Kindergarten, developed a fever. I assumed it was nothing and would soon pass. But it lingered, and lingered. I remember the crawling fear as I watched her getting weaker and weaker, and I realized that the medicines were not working. I was fortunate, and could take her to a well-equipped clinic, where doctors treated her with more potent antibiotics, and she recovered. But too many children are not so lucky.

Drug resistance is also complicating the treatment of old and relatively common diseases, such as pneumonia, and systematically eroding generational improvements in global health. The reduction in maternal and child deaths over the past 15 years, for instance, was in great part due to increased vaccine coverage and access to antibiotics.

Drug resistance also jeopardizes our chances of achieving internationally agreed health targets. Efforts at tackling malaria, for example, are being undermined by an increased resistance to drugs.

Drug resistance and super-bugs hit more forcefully -- and fatally -- the poor, the vulnerable and the marginalized, especially women and children. Studies show that drug-resistant tuberculosis predominantly affects women. In some countries, they are almost 40% more likely than men to be infected, which puts their lives at risk and increases their families' vulnerability. The disease is associated with a six-fold increase in perinatal deaths and a two-fold risk of premature birth and low birth-weight.

The odds are not in our favour: microbes out-number humans by around 10 million trillion to one. Drug-resistant infections are already responsible for more than half a million deaths annually. By 2050, they could kill another 10 million people globally every year.

In poor countries, it is hard enough ensuring basic medicines are readily available to all who need them. If resources like antibiotics become ineffective as well as scarce--and with nothing to replace them--the impact will be catastrophic, particularly for those already in precarious situations or in places with the highest rates of resistance.

There is, however, hope for tackling this growing menace.

Antimicrobial resistance can be fought, in part, by regulating the use of medicines, especially reducing the use of antibiotics in food production. Experts agree that nations must put in place national plans, strengthen surveillance and laboratory capacity, and enhance infection prevention and control. More research and development into this problem is also required.

G7 health ministers, meeting in Berlin in October, released a declaration with several action points, including supporting initiatives that strengthen infection prevention and raising awareness among the general public of the impact of antimicrobial resistance.

The United Nations is playing its part. In September, the UN Secretary-General launched the Global Strategy for Women's, Children's, and Adolescents' Health, which aims to help curb drug resistant infections. The Global Strategy, which is the fruit of broad consultations with partners in the Every Woman Every Child movement, builds on new evidence, fosters innovation and focuses on critical population groups to promote more resilient systems and improved, more equitable health services and coverage.

Also, this month the World Health Organisation launched a new campaign -- Antibiotics: Handle with Care to raise awareness about the problem.

But a greater political commitment, matched by bigger investments, is urgently needed. Drug resistant infections are a collective problem, requiring a collective and co-ordinated response.