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Antibiotic Resistance: Does the UN acknowledge the threat to human health?

Our healthcare systems are at risk of drug-resistant infections.

Photo by El Bingle (Flickr)
by Morven Caie

We’ve all heard that the end of the ‘golden era’ of medicine is looming; where the extinction of antibiotics spells the end of life as we know it. A simple paper cut that could lead to sepsis may end up killing you without the correct antibiotic. The World Health Organisation (WHO) reported in February this year that they recognise that antibiotic resistance is one of “the biggest threats to global health”. A United Nations campaign - the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) - lists 17 goals that aim to tackle some of the biggest global challenges in order to achieve a more sustainable future globally. It is a comprehensive list including addressing poverty, plastic pollution, clean water and sanitation, with Goal 3 setting out to improve Good Health and Well-Being. Missing from the SDGs, and more specifically from Goal 3, is any mention of antibiotic resistance despite how it jeopardises their targets to fully eradicate a number of diseases and minimise mortality rates in newborns and children, amongst other aims. So why - since the WHO are an agency within the UN - are there no guidelines to suppress antibiotic resistance, and what are the implications to global health in the near future?


Though resistance is consequence of natural selection, the sloppy and perhaps abusive nature that we use antibiotics speeds up this process. However, there are a number of ways we can slow this down. Careless disposal of the drugs within the agricultural industry means the antibiotics are released into the environment as run-off, and contact between the drugs and the naturally occurring bacterial communities allows drug-resistant mutations to thrive. Farmers also excessively use antibiotics on their crops and livestock, to treat but mostly to prevent diseases that could threaten their produce. Using these drugs as a method of prevention instead of vaccines and other practices encourages the horizontal gene transfer between the mutated bacteria to other bacteria, thus spreading resistance.


Within human health practice, antibiotics are widely overused and routinely prescribed for illnesses inappropriately. Some blame the blasé attitude that certain countries have, where antibiotics can be sold over-the-counter and used to treat illnesses that  are not bacterial. In some cases, doctors feel the need to prescribe antibiotics in order to satisfy patients in the knowledge they are getting some sort of medication, whilst knowing that antibiotics will not actually offer any remedy.


If guidelines and strategies were incorporated into the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals to minimise drug resistance, we could see a reduction in the way antibiotics are handled and misused on a global scale. Considering that antibiotics are not just for bacterial infections - their use goes far beyond that. From simple surgeries to organ transplants, caesarean sections and chemotherapy, the loss of antibiotics would affect almost all corners of healthcare. The ramifications of resistance will throw us back almost a hundred years and will undermine modern healthcare as we know it. The UN should fulfil their authority on the global stage and act faster to counteract antibiotic resistance, before we re-enter the dark ages of medicine.

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