What are they?
A new report by Australia’s chief science body CSIRO has warned the rise of antibiotic-resistant microbes (or ‘superbugs’) is a “silent pandemic” which could kill 10 million people a year worldwide by 2050 without action to stop it. The report recommends steps be taken to reduce unnecessary use of antibiotics (including in animals) and improve awareness.
Starting with the discovery of penicillin, antibiotics and other antimicrobial treatments have yielded enormous progress in fighting various harmful microbes (including bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites). This has allowed us to treat otherwise fatal illnesses or infections like pneumonia, tuberculosis, and staphylococcus infections. However, microbes can develop resistance to these treatments once exposed to them. Resistant microbes can become untreatable. Antimicrobial resistance has been an issue for as long as antibiotics have been used, but the problem is getting worse for several reasons. They include the overuse of antibiotics (including in animals) and poor hospital practices which allow antibiotics to enter wastewater. Both of these result in higher exposure of microbes to antibiotics and so allow greater resistance to develop.
The World Health Organisation lists resistant ‘superbugs’ as one of the top ten public health threats facing humanity. It’s estimated antimicrobial resistance causes over a million deaths a year, including several thousand in Australia. The CSIRO notes there are some estimates this could increase to 10 million deaths a year by 2050, seeing the world “thrust back into a pre antimicrobial age where simple infections are deadly, and some surgeries are too risky to perform.”
What can we do?
The CSIRO suggests better awareness campaigns, restrictions on unnecessary use of antibiotics including in farm settings, and better hospital practices. It also suggests Australia – which played a significant role in the early adoption of antibiotics – has the potential to be a “world-leader” in antimicrobial management by leading global efforts to improve practices.