Historical. A possible turning point.
These are the words health researchers are using to describe a declaration passed Wednesday by the U.N. General Assembly aiming to slow down the spread of superbugs — bacteria that have become resistant to antibiotics.
"I think the declaration will have very strong implications," says the World Health Organization's Dr. Keiji Fukuda. "What it will convey is that there's recognition that we have a big problem and there's a commitment to do something about it."
Every year, more than 2 million Americans get sick with antibiotic-resistant infections, and tens of thousands die as a result, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Common diseases, like urinary tract infections and pneumonia, are becoming harder and harder to treat. And new superbugs are cropping up — even here in the U.S. — that are resistant to last-resort drugs.
Doctors have been warning about this problem for decades. But in the past year or so, another group of researchers has started taking interest in superbugs: economists. And they quickly realized the problem goes way beyond health.
"Antibiotic resistance has immense economic consequences and immense implications for food," Fukuda says.
A recent report from the U.K. government found that antibiotic-resistant bacteria could cost the world $100 trillion by 2050 if nothing is done about it. The World Bank predicts drug-resistant infections could damage the economy as much as — or even more than — the 2008 financial crisis. And annual global GDP could drop by 1 to 4 percent, the agency says.
On top of that, farmers around the world have come to rely on antibiotics to raise animals. The drugs make pigs, cows and chickens grow fatter more quickly — and keeps them healthy in densely packed quarters.
"If we lose that ability we begin to perhaps lose the ability to have adequate food supplies in the world," Fukuda says.
And that's why world leaders are now getting involved. The U.N.'s declaration requires countries to come up with a two-year a plan to protect the potency of antibiotics. Countries need to create ways to monitor the use of antibiotics in medicine and agriculture, start curbing that use and begin developing new antibiotics that work.
After two years, the U.N.'s secretary-general will assess each country's plan and check to make sure each is making progress.
"I think this is the first realistic chance, in our lifetime, to turn this around," Fukuda says.
And there's precedent for this optimism.
Back in 2001, the U.N. made a similar declaration about the HIV pandemic. And that declaration had a big impact on curbing the spread of HIV around the world, says Ramanan Laxminarayan, who directs the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy in Washington, D.C.
"The declaration made countries take responsibility for the HIV burden," he says. People were willing to start talking about and change their attitudes on stigma. And last but not least, the declaration made sure that lots of money went towards both treatment and prevention."
He says there are a few weaknesses in the U.N.'s new plan on antibiotic-resistant bacteria. For example, there are no hardcore targets for reducing antibiotic use by a certain amount in two years.
But he thinks the declaration could have the same impact on fighting antibiotic-resistant bacteria as the previous one had on fighting HIV. Since 2004, there has been a 45 percent drop in AIDS-related deaths in countries supported by global HIV campaigns.
"Am I optimistic? I certainly am," he says. "In fact, we don't have a choice. We have to do better than we're doing right now because tens of thousands of people are now dying around the world, particularly newborns. And this is surely getting worse year by year."