If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that threats to our health care system can change lives, both in our communities and around the world. We have learned the value of preparedness and that the ability to respond to massive, impactful events is not easy or without compromise. Thankfully, as summer nears, we see that gradually, countries around the world are in a much better place, thanks to access to vaccines and greater knowledge of how to diagnose and care for patients.
Certainly, we can hope that lessons learned from our recent experience with the COVID-19 pandemic will put us in a better position to identify and address a health issue before it develops to pandemic proportions. But I would urge us to remain vigilant. There are other threats to our health care system that exist and deserve attention…now. One major threat to world health delivery systems is about to have its moment: Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR).
Antimicrobials, which include antibiotics, are critical to maintaining our health. Chances are, in the course of the year, someone in your family will take an antibiotic for an ear infection, an abscessed tooth, a hip replacement, organ transplant, or cancer treatment. In recent years, we have learned that taking too many antibiotics can lead to resistance and therefore a loss of effectiveness. This is true, but it’s important to note that the antimicrobials used to treat resistant infections are much more intense and used in more extreme circumstances than the antibiotics most of us are familiar with.
Antimicrobials fight bacteria and other causes of serious infection and are often the last line of defense against fatal infection. Antimicrobial resistance needs to be taken seriously. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that approximately three million Americans suffer from AMR infections each year with close to 50,000 deaths annually. Other estimates have placed annual deaths from AMR at 162,000, which makes AMR the third leading cause of death in the U.S. today. Surprised?
Here’s what surprised me: there has only been one new class of antibiotics approved in OVER 30 YEARS. Think about that. We have seen game-changing progress in medicine and treatments for countless diseases and conditions, but not AMR. And then think about how many causes of infection have become resistant to the tools we have to fight them.
AMR is a complex problem that’s not going to be easily solved. It takes years and years and billions of dollars to develop a molecule to fight AMR. Today we are faced with a slim menu of therapeutic options now and we find ourselves years away from expanding those options. I fear that AMR may be our next worldwide health emergency and I am not alone: The World Health Organization (WHO) lists AMR as one of the top ten health threats today. Sadly, it’s not a matter of “if”…but rather “when”.
Medicines don’t work forever. With the limited number of effective antimicrobials, we are looking straight down the barrel of the next health emergency. It’s difficult to even contemplate pivoting from all that we have been through with COVID to a new focus on something else equally frightening, but history tells us that being unprepared comes at a heavy cost. And being prepared is exactly what we need to do.