Historical. A possible turning point.
These are the words health researchers are using to describe a declaration passed Wednesday by the U.N. General Assembly aiming to slow down the spread of superbugs — bacteria that have become resistant to antibiotics.
"I think the declaration will have very strong implications," says the World Health Organization's Dr. Keiji Fukuda. "What it will convey is that there's recognition that we have a big problem and there's a commitment to do something about it."
Every year, more than 2 million Americans get sick with antibiotic-resistant infections, and tens of thousands die as a result, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Common diseases, like urinary tract infections and pneumonia, are becoming harder and harder to treat. And new superbugs are cropping up — even here in the U.S. — that are resistant to last-resort drugs.
Doctors have been warning about this problem for decades. But in the past year or so, another group of researchers has started taking interest in superbugs: economists. And they quickly realized the problem goes way beyond health.
"Antibiotic resistance has immense economic consequences and immense implications for food," Fukuda says.
A recent report from the U.K. government found that antibiotic-resistant bacteria could cost the world $100 trillion by 2050 if nothing is done about it. The World Bank predicts drug-resistant infections could damage the economy as much as — or even more than — the 2008 financial crisis. And annual global GDP could drop by 1 to 4 percent, the agency says.
On top of that, farmers around the world have come to rely on antibiotics to raise animals. The drugs make pigs, cows and chickens grow fatter more quickly — and keeps them healthy in densely packed quarters.
"If we lose that ability we begin to perhaps lose the ability to have adequate food supplies in the world," Fukuda says.
And that's why world leaders are now getting involved. The U.N.'s declaration requires countries to come up with a two-year a plan to protect the potency of antibiotics. Countries need to create ways to monitor the use of antibiotics in medicine and agriculture, start curbing that use and begin developing new antibiotics that work.
After two years, the U.N.'s secretary-general will assess each country's plan and check to make sure each is making progress.
"I think this is the first realistic chance, in our lifetime, to turn this around," Fukuda says.
And there's precedent for this optimism.
Back in 2001, the U.N. made a similar declaration about the HIV pandemic. And that declaration had a big impact on curbing the spread of HIV around the world, says Ramanan Laxminarayan, who directs the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy in Washington, D.C.
"The declaration made countries take responsibility for the HIV burden," he says. People were willing to start talking about and change their attitudes on stigma. And last but not least, the declaration made sure that lots of money went towards both treatment and prevention."
He says there are a few weaknesses in the U.N.'s new plan on antibiotic-resistant bacteria. For example, there are no hardcore targets for reducing antibiotic use by a certain amount in two years.
But he thinks the declaration could have the same impact on fighting antibiotic-resistant bacteria as the previous one had on fighting HIV. Since 2004, there has been a 45 percent drop in AIDS-related deaths in countries supported by global HIV campaigns.
"Am I optimistic? I certainly am," he says. "In fact, we don't have a choice. We have to do better than we're doing right now because tens of thousands of people are now dying around the world, particularly newborns. And this is surely getting worse year by year."
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
They've been called one of the biggest health threats of our time. They're thought to kill at least 700,000 people a year. And if nothing changes, economists say they could cost the world about $100 trillion by 2050. They are superbugs, bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics.
World leaders at the U.N. General Assembly today vowed to slow the global spread of superbugs. It's rare that the U.N. takes such a strong action against a health threat. It has happened just three times before. NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff reports.
MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: If antibiotics no longer work against pathogens, modern medicine as we know it will be a distant memory. Common infections like UTIs could be deadly. Routine procedures like C-sections and chemotherapy would be too dangerous to perform. But Dr. Keiji Fukada of the World Health Organization says the problem extends way beyond health.
KEIJI FUKADA: It has immense economic consequences, immense implications for food. It's why it's become a topic for discussion at the level of presidents and prime ministers.
DOUCLEFF: Fukada says farmers around the world have come to rely on antibiotics to raise animals. The drugs make pigs, cows and chickens grow fatter more quickly and keeps them healthy in densely packed quarters
FUKADA: If we lose that ability, we begin to perhaps lose the ability to have adequate food supplies in the world.
DOUCLEFF: And that's why world leaders are now getting involved. The U.N. General Assembly passed a declaration today that requires countries to come up with a plan to protect the potency of antibiotics. Every time an antibiotic is used, it gives pathogens a chance to evolve resistance. After two years, the U.N. will check to make sure countries are making progress. Fukada says the declaration is more than just hot air.
FUKADA: I think it will have very strong implications. What it will convey is that there is recognition that we have a big problem and commitment to do something about it.
DOUCLEFF: OK, so this could be a turning point for this problem.
FUKADA: I think that this period of time where we have a much broader understanding is really the first realistic chance in our lifetime to turn this around.
DOUCLEFF: And there is precedent for this optimism. Back in 2001, the U.N. made a similar declaration about the HIV pandemic. Ramanan Laxminarayan says that declaration had a big impact on curbing the spread of HIV around the world.
RAMANAN LAXMINARAYAN: Am I optimistic that this could happen for antibiotic resistance as well? I certainly am. In fact we don't have a choice. We have to do better than we're doing right now because tens of thousands of people are now dying around the world, particularly newborns in developing countries. And this is surely getting worse year by year.
DOUCLEFF: Laxminarayan directs the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy, a think tank in Washington, D.C. He says there are a few weaknesses in the U.N.'s declaration. For example, there are no hard-core targets for reducing antibiotic use by a certain amount in 2 years.
But he says it will be difficult for countries to walk away from this problem because they know how close the world is to losing one of its most powerful weapons against disease. Michaeleen Doucleff, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.