Antimicrobial Resistance After a Global Pandemic
Two years ago, the world went into lockdown amid the outbreak of a new virus. Today, there’s no doubt that COVID-19 has drastically changed our way of life. Although we are learning to contain the virus as vaccine roll-out continues, the full long-term impact of the pandemic is still unknown.
As the pandemic spread, it overwhelmed health systems and overshadowed many other important health issues. Unfortunately, research into antimicrobial resistance was among these. In fact, the spread of drug-resistant pathogens was fueled during the outbreak of COVID-19 due to excessive and often ill-advised use of antimicrobials in treatments. A study in the UK, for example, found that of 50,000 patients admitted to hospital with confirmed or a high likelihood of COVID-19 infection, just 2.3 percent had a clinically significant confirmed bacteria co-infection besides their COVID-19 diagnosis. Conversely, 85 percent of the patients had one or more antimicrobials prescribed at some point during their admission.
In practice, this antimicrobial resistance leads to challenges in the treatment of common and usually mild diseases, alongside an increase in hospital occupancy rates, the need for more expensive drugs, and a higher risk of infections after surgeries. This trend is now playing out in real life: a high-profile example of antimicrobial resistance was seen recently as ‘80s rock icon Billy Idol canceled a number of concerts due to contracting a superbug — MRSA, which is a type of bacteria that has become resistant to many of the antibiotics used to treat ordinary staph infections.
If unabated, the exaggerated use of antimicrobials is expected to have a significant knock-on impact over the next few years, where it is estimated that drug resistant infections will contribute to nearly 5 million deaths annually. Economically, there will be a dramatic rise in the cost of healthcare, thus complicating accessibility to health services and increasing levels of poverty and inequality.
In my previous article, I commented on the importance of sustainable, resilient and flexible health systems in order to prevent and manage future health crises, provide universal health coverage, and meet COP26 goals as well as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015. Resilient health systems, capable of detecting, containing, and stopping public health threats wherever they start, also means health systems that tackle antimicrobial resistance – one of the most significant and current threats that the world is facing.
To contain antimicrobial resistance, the World Health Organization has identified four priority areas that require attention:
- Stepping up leadership for the antimicrobial resistance response;
- Driving public health impact in every country to address antimicrobial resistance;
- Conducting research and development for better access to quality antimicrobial resistance prevention and care; and,
- Monitoring the antimicrobial resistance burden and global antimicrobial resistance response.
It is critical that we recognize that we all have a part to play in tackling this issue, including supporting these four action points; whether it is researchers developing new and better antibiotics, healthcare providers making more responsible use of antimicrobials, or each of us as individuals following advice from healthcare professionals and avoiding self-medication.
Global collaboration is required to collect, produce and share reliable data in order to understand and evaluate the burden of antimicrobial resistance and for a full response to be rolled out. Our progress depends on commitment, collaboration and sustainable investment that focuses on the correct use of antimicrobials for human health, animal health, the environment, and food production. This collaboration includes engagement with academia, civil society, philanthropic organizations and the private sector. The UK is at the forefront of this effort, with a five-year national action plan launched in 2019, setting out our vision for antimicrobial resistance to be contained and controlled by 2040.
Action from all of us is needed to fully meet this challenge and to generate plans and incentives to stop and control antimicrobial resistance. We all have a role to play, so let’s do it, together.