April 29, 2019 4:00 pm

Drug-resistant diseases could kill millions unless the world takes action: report

Public Health Ontario says the individual citizen and the medical community are both responsible in fighting antibiotic resistance.

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Antimicrobial-resistant diseases could potentially cost millions of lives worldwide, according to a new report presented to the Secretary-General of the United Nations on Monday.

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The report, prepared by the Interagency Coordination Group on Antimicrobial Resistance (IACG), warns that unless the whole world takes action soon to stop the spread of antibiotic-resistant disease, there would be dire consequences for human health.

“Antimicrobial resistance (…) is truly a threat to humankind that could reverse what we have achieved over the last century on human health,” said Dr. Haileyesus Getahun, director of the IACG.

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Antimicrobial resistance is the phenomenon where pathogens, like bacteria, develop resistance over time to common medications, to the point where they can no longer be easily killed by drugs that used to work on them.

Estimates aren’t perfect, Getahun said, but his group believes that at least 700,000 people a year die from drug-resistant diseases, like drug-resistant forms of tuberculosis.

That number could increase to 10 million annual deaths by 2050 under the World Bank’s worst-case scenario, the report said.

“The scenario is very, very grim,” Getahun said.

One of the biggest contributors to the antimicrobial threat is the continued use of antibiotics on farm animals to make them larger or fatter, says the IACG.

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In Canada, 262,590 kg of antimicrobials were used in people in 2017. Nearly four times that amount — 950,000 kg — were used in animals, according to a report by the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Countries need to stop using antimicrobials on farm animals for non-medicinal reasons, Getahun said.

READ MORE: Farmers fear losses if they aren’t allowed to use antibiotics on livestock

“There are a lot of countries that use and reported using antimicrobials, antibiotics for growth promotion in animals,” he said. “One beauty of this report is at least there is now consensus that we need to phase out the use of antimicrobials for growth promotion.”

His group is also asking countries to improve how antibiotic medications are dispensed so they’re not overused, and promote the development of new drugs.

But to do this, the whole world needs to work together, he said. Unlike many other health issues, antimicrobial resistance affects both rich and poor nations.

“Antimicrobial resistance is actually a global problem,” he said, noting that no country can hope to address it alone.

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“The biggest challenge and problem of antimicrobial resistance is a lack of awareness in the general public as well as in the political leadership,” he said. Ignorance, he added, makes the problem worse. “In so many parts of the world, antibiotics are sold over the counter or over the internet, and this increases unnecessary use and misuse of antibiotics.”

The international community needs to start working on the problem immediately, Getahun said, to address antimicrobial resistance before it’s too late.

“We have no time, and that’s why we need to act today,” he said. “If we act today with the urgency that this crisis requires, there will be hope.

“If not, we are going into a crisis where we are going to lose all of what we have gained in human health and we will be in a scenario where treatable infections will no longer be treatable.”

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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