At the first-ever United Nation’s General Assembly Meeting on Drug-Resistant Bacteria, secretary general Ban Ki-moon declared antibiotic resistance “the greatest and most urgent global risk” to health and safety.
It is only the fourth time in its history that the general assembly has held a high-level meeting for a health issue.
More than 700,000 people die each year due to drug-resistant infections. That number is forecasted to grow to a staggering 10 million deaths per year in just a decade or so, posing an existential threat to humans if something is not done. Many antibiotics that were once thought to have put an end to infectious disease are no longer working because the bugs have become resistant to them. Gonorrhea, for example, is fast becoming incurable. The same can be said of many hospital-acquired infections.
What is responsible for this crisis? One important human factor is the over-use, and often misuse of antibiotics. Many patients are readily prescribed antibiotics, which only work on bacteria, to treat viral infections such as the common cold. Doctors often do this to avoid the wrath of patient dissatisfaction.
A second, and perhaps much more important contributor to this crisis is the ubiquitous use of antibiotics in the farming industry. Antibiotics are prophylactically added to animal feed in the hopes of keeping animals healthy. This is often done at the expense of more sanitary conditions. In fact, a recent independent study found that almost half (49.7%) of all the chickens sold in US supermarkets carried at least one type of bacterium resistant to at least three classes of antibiotics.
But how does this resistance occur? Bacteria are incredibly crafty biological machines. Unlike humans, who often take centuries or even millennia to effectively develop mutations in large enough numbers to “evolve”, bacteria can quickly adapt to their environment by changing their DNA (e.g. mutate). They're able to reproduce in enough numbers so as to completely re-populate an entire colony in just a few hours or days.
The below video, courtesy of Harvard Medical School, shows just how dramatic and real these drug resistant mutations are.
Video credit: Harvard Medical School.