United Nations: Superbugs a serious threat to human health, food supply

The Heads of States of the United Nations (UN) recently came together to recognize and commit to combating the threats posed by superbugs. Antimicrobial resistance (AMR)–a broader term than antibiotic resistance–includes bacteria, viruses, parasites, and fungi that develop resistance against medicines that were previously able to cure them. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said AMR poses “a fundamental, long-term threat to human health, sustainable food production and development.” At the High-Level Meeting on Antimicrobial Resistance, the UN sought to get and keep strong commitments to address AMR from national, regional, and international political groups.

Global action plan

Last year, the UN World Health Organization (WHO) published the Global Action Plan on Antimicrobial Resistance. The action plan outlines five objectives:

  • to improve awareness and understanding of AMR through effective communication, education, and training;
  • to strengthen the knowledge and evidence base through surveillance and research;
  • to reduce the incidence of infection through effective sanitation, hygiene, and infection prevention measures;
  • to optimize the use of antimicrobial medicines in human and animal health; and
  • to develop the economic case for sustainable investment that takes account of the needs of all countries and to increase investment in new medicines, diagnostic tools, vaccines, and other interventions.

The High-Level Meeting built on and emphasized the importance of achieving the action plan’s objectives.

FAO action plan

In advance of the High-Level Meeting, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN (FAO) pledged to help countries develop strategies for tackling the spread of AMR in their food supply chains. It released its own action plan to address AMR specifically in food and agriculture:

  • improving awareness of AMR issues among farmers and producers, veterinary professionals and authorities, policymakers, and food consumers;
  • building national capacities for surveillance and monitoring of AMR and antimicrobial use (AMU) in food and agriculture;
  • strengthening governance related to AMU and AMR in food and agriculture; and
  • promoting good practices in food and agricultural systems and the prudent use of antimicrobials.

Threat of AMR

According to the UN, AMR poses a huge threat. WHO Assistant Director-General and Special Representative for AMR Keiji Fukuda explained how deadly AMR is to humans: “By 2050, estimates indicate more people could die from antibiotic resistant infections than those who currently from cancer. . . . almost 10 million people would die from infections because they couldn’t be treated anymore.” Another effect on human life is less direct, but no less of a threat. Fukuda said that sustainable food supplies–and the availability of food for the growing global population–depend heavily on antibiotics used to treat sick animals and to prevent the spread of diseases.

Andrew Gurman, M.D., President of the American Medical Association (AMA), applauded the UN’s declaration of AMR as a danger. He said, “The AMA will continue to do its part to educate physicians on the importance of antibiotic stewardship in the inpatient and outpatient settings and provide them with the latest tools to help alleviate uncertainty when prescribing antibiotics.”