Antibiotic Resistance: A Global Threat to Public Health

Laura Rogers

This is the first installment in a blog series about awareness of antibacterial resistance that will lead to World Antibiotic Awareness Week, November 12-18, 2018. Check back for more blog posts throughout the coming weeks!

When antibiotics were introduced as a medicine in the 1940s, they changed the face of medicine. The drugs quickly became the cornerstone of modern medicine. In a pre-antibiotic world, even a simple cut to the knee could kill if it became infected, as we had no reliable tools to kill bacteria. Antibiotics allowed thousands of soldiers from World War II to come home because their infections from the battlefield could be treated. By contrast, during World War I, one out of every three soldiers died from infection or disease.

Antibiotics allow doctors to safely perform surgeries, cesarean sections, and organ transplants. Today, these complex procedures are thought of as almost routine, but this could all be in jeopardy because antibiotics have been widely overused and misused in human medicine and animal agriculture in the United States and around the world. This has led to antibiotic resistance–one of the greatest public health threats today. Antibiotic resistance happens when an antibiotic loses its ability to effectively control or kill bacteria. The bacteria become "resistant" and continue to grow because the antibiotic being administered has no ability to kill them.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization and numerous medical societies all warn that if antibiotic use is not significantly reduced, we could soon be living in a post-antibiotic era where routine surgeries and other procedures become high risk. Antibiotic-resistant infections are becoming increasingly common, and if we don’t change course, it is estimated that by 2050, antibiotic-resistant infections will kill 10 million people per year worldwide. That’s roughly one person dying every three seconds.

Losing antibiotics to fight bacterial infections is almost imaginable. There would be no organ transplants or joint replacements, routine surgeries could become life threatening and a simple cut could kill. That’s a dire prediction of the future of medicine, but it does not need to come true. If antibiotic overuse is reduced in people and animals, the tide of this looming public health crisis can be turned. Antibiotic resistance does not discriminate, it is a risk that everyone faces so everyone must work together to turn this issue around.

This underpins why we started the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center (ARAC) at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University.  ARAC is focused on finding out-of-the box solutions to antibiotic resistance. ARAC is staffed by a group of committed scientists, clinicians, communicators and policy experts working together to fight antibiotic resistance through cutting-edge research, science-based policy, evidence-based practice, and strategic communications. ARAC’s interdisciplinary team is navigating a world in transition to curb the threat of antibiotic resistance.

ARAC conducts research to identify the main drivers of antibiotic resistance in people and in the food supply. ARAC encourages people to call for change in the marketplace and vote with their wallets by purchasing only from food companies that are transparent regarding antibiotic use. ARAC also urges policy makers to develop new rules that would hold the food industry accountable, and ultimately protect public health by reducing the unnecessary use of antibiotics in food animal production.

The future of antibiotics is in jeopardy, but this crisis can be turned around. In 2016, the UN General Assembly gave unprecedented attention to antibiotic resistance – only the 4th time in the history of the world body that it focused on a health issue. Every U.N. member state signed a declaration to put countrywide plans in place to end inappropriate uses of antibiotics in human medicine and in agriculture. The UN General Assembly will again take up the issue in 2019. It’s up to the citizens of the world to call on their home countries to implement meaningful plans and track their progress to reduce unnecessary uses of antibiotics. We must work swiftly and meaningfully to combat antibiotic resistance and ensure antibiotics work for people and animals when they are needed.

Laura Rogers is deputy director of the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center.


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