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The Silent Pandemic of Antibiotic Resistance

Antibiotic resistance has been a slow-growing scourge, fueled in part by relatively weak political support for implementing national action plans and surveillance systems. Because the problem is essentially the result of multiple systems failures, overcoming it requires urgent global collective action.

WASHINGTON, DC/UPPSALA – When the World Health Organization launched last year’s World Antimicrobial Awareness Week, it expanded the campaign’s focus from antibiotics to all antimicrobials – including antiviral, antifungal, and antiprotozoal drugs. The WHO said that framing the response to antibiotic resistance (ABR) within the broader antimicrobial resistance (AMR) agenda, including HIV and malaria, would “facilitate programmatic synergy and efficiency, and catalyze country-level action to combat drug-resistant infections.” But although there are many commonalities between ABR and AMR, there are also important differences that justify paying specific attention to antibiotics.

ABR has been a slow-growing pandemic, fueled in part by relatively weak political support for implementing national action plans that include the establishment of well-resourced surveillance systems. The resulting lack of context-specific data on the health and economic burden of resistance has created an obstacle to policy action.

Although aggregate numbers on the global AMR burden exist – the most cited, from the United Kingdom’s independent 2014-16 AMR review, chaired by the economist Jim O’Neill, put the toll at 700,000 deaths per year – these underrepresent the ABR problem, owing to the limited scope of bacteria covered. In fact, estimates suggest that ABR alone claims more than 750,000 lives every year, with the largest toll most likely occurring among children in the poorest countries. In a recent global survey, 79% of physicians treating newborns reported an increasing trend of multi-drug-resistant infections over the last five years, while 54% cited ABR as the leading cause of failure to treat neonatal sepsis, a blood infection affecting newborns.

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