Superbugs are a global threat

Tackling drug-resistant bacteria will require a high degree of international cooperation

The United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York. Frank Franklin II / AP
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Not everything said at the United Nations General Assembly is worth hearing. Too often its meetings are used for overt political point scoring or for bureaucratic doublespeak. But the great and the good of the world diplomatic community also address some issues of vital and global importance – and one agenda item certainly fits that description.

The “high-level meeting on antimicrobial resistance”, to be held on Wednesday next week, will address a matter of life and death: the fact that some bacteria have adapted to the point where medical treatment is all but ineffective. This will be only the fourth time that the General Assembly has addressed a health issue, the others being HIV, Ebola and non-communicable diseases. Such is the issue’s importance that several heads of state are expected to address the assembly.

As the UN notes, many common infections are becoming resistant to the antimicrobial medicines used to treat them, resulting in longer illnesses and more deaths. Scientists have known for many years that bacteria are becoming resistant to commonly prescribed antibiotics. The unsustainable, knee-jerk solution has been to prescribe more and stronger drugs. But this has just hastened the adaptation process, creating almost untreatable “superbugs”. The World Health Organisation says that as many as 700,000 deaths a year are attributable to antimicrobial resistance, and that figure could rise to 10 million in the next 35 years. Doctors have recently reported a new strain of bacteria that is resistant to colistin, the so-called drug of last resort.

A major reason that we are at this point is that antibiotics and other drugs have been overprescribed and are too readily available. As The National has reported on several occasions, drugs that ought to be available only on prescription are often openly for sale at pharmacies in the UAE.

We can only hope that the UN meeting can find a way forward, because these superbugs know no borders. When it comes to this sort of health emergency, we are all in it together.