Drug-resistant infections: The silent pandemic that we must tackle now

As the world reels from the impact of COVID-19, it would be a tragedy not to apply the lessons we are learning to the fight against drug resistance

By Manica Balasegaram
Published: Tuesday 17 November 2020
Drug-resistant infections: The silent pandemic that we must tackle now. Photo:

 Manica Balasegaram

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Drug-resistant ‘superbug’ infections kill an estimated 700,000 people each year, a number set to rise to 10 million per year by 2050 as drug resistance to antimicrobial agents grows and weakens our ability to treat even common infections.

A worrying number of infections are becoming harder and extremely complicated to treat due to drug resistance. The consequences of not addressing this silent pandemic now could result in a future where we will not be able to treat even common infections like pneumonia, urinary tract infections and infections in newborns.

We now have an opportunity to avert this potential catastrophe through strong leadership, collaboration and investment in measures to counteract the threat of drug resistance.

The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has been our first experience of a pandemic in a generation that has been both, devastating and far-reaching. It has highlighted that governments are now willing to make substantial and long-term investments in preparedness to tackle global health crises.

With limited tools to prevent or treat COVID-19, the pandemic has disrupted health systems and global economies in ways the world has not seen before.

Despite solutions being at hand, a similar situation could be on the cards for the evolving pandemic of drug-resistant infections unless urgent action is taken to address decades of disinvestment in late-stage antibiotic research and the lack of access to antibiotic treatments.

In several countries like India, antibiotics, while not effective against viruses, are being used frequently in people with COVID-19 to prevent or treat suspected or confirmed secondary bacterial infections.

Even though key antibiotics cannot be used without prescription, the lack of enforcement can lead to significant overuse, further fuelling antibiotic resistance.

If COVID-19 has taught us one important lesson, it is that pandemic preparedness requires a global coordinated effort and no country can do it alone.

Similarly, strengthening our ability to fight drug-resistant infections requires a sustained, coordinated response, which must also ensure affordable access to solutions.

Particularly critical to tackling drug-resistant infections is the One Health concept, recognising the importance of connecting the health of people to both, the health of animals and our shared environment.

Drug-resistant infections move silently within populations and between animals, humans and environments; they do not know boundaries and neither should our responses. 

COVID-19 has reinforced the concept of a global community, where our health and well-being are inextricably linked, regardless of where we live.

Solutions will therefore only be successful if they are available to everyone around the world, including those in low- and middle-income countries,and if their reality, know-how and capacity are part of a comprehensive response.

Ensuring universal research and development, equitable and affordable access to solutions needs to be a cornerstone of pandemic preparedness and response.

The evolving pandemic of drug-resistant infections has the potential to cripple the world in the same way that COVID-19 has done this year.

However, unlike with COVID-19, we know what it will take to combat drug resistance and that meaningful change can be achieved with sufficient political will and resources.

There is an opportunity now to significantly step up our response to drug-resistant infections and prepare ourselves to handle the unpredictable and silent nature of the pandemic, where the true extent of damage done remains somewhat invisible.

The fight against drug-resistant infections will rely on governments seizing this opportunity to develop a more robust, coordinated and equitable approach to pandemic preparedness and global health security.

Our success in fighting this pandemic will depend on the motivation now to secure investment and ensure access to solutions like better surveillance of resistant infections, strong infection prevention and control, healthy enforcement of antibiotic policies, tests to identify resistance and the development of novel antibiotics.

Dr Manica Balasegaram is the Executive Director of the Global Antibiotic Research & Development Partnership, a not-for-profit organization developing new treatments for drug-resistant infections that pose the greatest threat to health

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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