Some ailments have been global terrors for a very long time — heart disease, cancer, and HIV/AIDS, for example. Infectious diseases have always been a formidable threat in areas without access to certain medicines, but after the discovery of antibiotics, developed countries significantly dropped the rate at which infectious diseases killed people.
These diseases are making a comeback, however, and it is totally our own fault.
According to a new government-backed report, medicine-resistant infections will kill more people every year than cancer by 2050. Resistant infections including new strains of E. coli, malaria, and tuberculosis caused an estimated 700,000 deaths globally this year, but the scientists warn that number will be around 10 million if action is not taken. The study, called the Review on Antimicrobial Resistance, was commissioned by David Cameron and led by Jim O’Neill, the former Goldman Sachs economist and chairman.
Medicine-resistant infections will not only be killing more, but they will also cost the world $100 trillion (yes, trillion with a “t”) annually. The report points to the use of antibiotics in agriculture as the main culprit behind the drug-resistant infection uprising, warning that the practice should be cut back or even banned. This concerning trend even extended to “last resort” antibiotics — the last line of defense for humans that cannot be replaced when ineffective.
“I find it staggering that in many countries, most of the consumption of antibiotics is in animals rather than humans,” Jim O’Neill told The Guardian. “This creates a bid resistance risk for everyone, which was highlighted by the recent Chinese finding of resistance to colistin, an important last-resort antibiotic that has been used extensively in animals.”
O’Neill said scientific evidence has supported the curtailing of antibiotic use in agriculture, and it’s about time for policymakers to act on it.
“We need to radically reduce global use of antibiotics, and to do this we need world leaders to agree to an ambitious target to lower levels, along with restricting the use of antibiotics important to humans.”
The experts involved in the study argued that there should be an agreed level of antibiotic use per kilogram of livestock. They also raised concerns over pollution — antimicrobial manufacture produces waste, and that waste is often discharged into water courses, causing a “particular risk for resistance.”
“The routine and regular pumping of antibiotics into animals is deeply dangerous in that it creates resistance to drugs that are key to modern medicine and key to our lives and livelihoods,” said Nicholas Stern, president of the British Academy. “It is a classic example of short-term private interest conflict with medium-term public good. In this case, the private gains are modest and the public damage is huge. It requires coordinated public action.”
OUR OWN WORST ENEMY
Though it may prove to be the most damaging, this superbug scare is certainly not the first time humans have been the architects of their own health troubles. We’ve been causing issues for hundreds of years, really.
Beginning with the Industrial Revolution, altering our environment is the first way we managed to hurt our own health. The effects of air pollution have been well documented, and include respiratory irritation, breathing difficulties, and coughing and wheezing. These symptoms are exacerbated in those already suffering from an underlying cardiovascular disease, and in children and the elderly. Continued exposure can result in loss of long capacity, development of diseases like asthma, and a shortened life span.
Though pollution is mostly caused by large factories and businesses, individual lifestyle choices can have a powerful effect on one’s health as well. Whether its smoking, poor diet, overuse of alcohol, unprotected sex, or lack of physical activity, humans commit a myriad of offenses against their own bodies.
Lack of exercise and poor diet can lead to obesity, which in turn can be a factor in the development of heart disease and diabetes. Abuse of alcohol harms the liver, and the harmful effects of smoking have been so publicized that it became one of the few semi-success stories in the book of human-caused health issues. Many countries have banned smoking in public areas and around minors, significantly reducing the presence of secondhand smoke, and taxes on cigarettes have been implemented in an attempt to discourage smokers.
Though it’s impossible to police every individual’s behavior to conform to healthy standards, countrywide legislation against harmful practices (such as the use of antibiotics in livestock) has a chance to save us from ourselves.