Global drugmakers say they will clean up factories making antibiotics and take steps to curb overuse to fight the increase in drug-resistant superbugs. The UN is also planning a high-level meeting on the problem.
World leaders at the UN General Assembly are expected to sign up to a declaration seeking to fight antibiotic-resistant superbugs on Wednesday. The draft agreement included governments committing to bolster controls over the drug market, step up awareness programs and encourage research in alternative treatments.
Ahead of this, 13 leading pharmaceutical companies worldwide - including Pfizer, Novartis, GlaxoSmithKline, Allergan, Cipla, Wockhardt and Germany's Merck - signed the declaration. The group planned to work with independent experts, who would alter factory supply chains and standards, aiming to ensure that antibiotics did not enter waterways and lead to the breeding of superbugs.
They also agreed to raise awareness on the overuse of antibiotics for humans and for livestock, and sought to remove incentives for selling the drugs in large quantities.
Owing to short life spans and rapid reproduction, bacteria can evolve at speeds far more rapid than those of larger animals like mammals; exposure to antibiotics can therefore lead to diseases developing resistance to the medication. This chance increases if patients fail to complete a course of antibiotics, or if the drug is widely present in low concentrations - for instance in the water supply.
The World Health Organization (WHO) hoped the meeting would attract public funding to tackle the issue. "We are losing our ability to treat infections," Keiji Fukuda, a senior WHO official, told reporters. "Not only does it threaten to increase deaths, but our whole ability to handle patients is threatened. It also threatens our ability to grow enough food," he added, referring to the effects of drug-resistance bacteria on crops.
'A big social threat'
Drug-resistant microbes were predicted by Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin, decades ago. But according to Fukuda, the problem has accellerated in the last few decades, compounded by little research into the development of new antibiotics. Commonplace problems like skin and blood ailments and urinary tract infections are becoming increasingly difficult to treat with antibiotics.
The UN says tuberculosis is one of the most difficult infections to treat, with 480,000 people a year developing some form of the disease which is resistant to treatment. Sexually transmitted diseases like gonorrhoea and infections transmitted in hospitals also pose a serious threat.
"We have not come up with any new class of antibiotics in at least two decades. There is a dry pipeline," Fukuda told reporters. Superbugs have become a "big societal threat," he said.
A recent British study predicted that globally, by 2050, superbug infections could claim 10 million lives per year, comparable to the current annual death toll from cancer. The same report estimated that 700,000 people per year were currently dying from antibiotic-reisistant illnesses.
mg/msh (Reuters, AP, AFP)