At the United Nations in New York this week, as the heads of state of 140 nations gather to address the pressing issues of the day — growing armed conflict, terrorism, and the massive refugee crisis — they will also spend a full day confronting the harm caused by the emerging global crisis of antibiotic-resistant infections.
One reason for the UN action is the sheer size of the number of people affected. The worldwide carnage of death caused by resistant infections is conservatively estimated at 700,000 people. In the US alone, the annual number is put at 23,000. But a compelling new investigation called “The Uncounted,” says that number grossly underestimates actual deaths — “a tiny fraction of the actual toll” — mainly because states simply do not record deaths by resistant infections, do so for only a few types of drug-resistant infections, or do not record consistently. Instead, the death will be listed as organ failure or simply as an infection that couldn’t be treated.
The near future is even more worrying. According to a widely-accepted study by the UK government, drug-resistant infections will kill an extra 10 million people a year worldwide – more than currently die from cancer – by 2050.
The second reason for the UN concern is less obvious but more insidious: Antibiotics have to be used in the treatment of most immunocompromised patients who, by definition, face a higher risk of infection. For example, burn victims, cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, women undergoing c-sections, organ transplant patients, and even people undergoing routine surgery. And in all cases, the elderly, especially, are at risk. And so without effective antibiotics these procedures become even more dangerous.
Addressing this second issue three years ago the chief medical officer of Britain, Sally Davies MD, described it as “a ticking time bomb,” and that “the growing resistance to antibiotics should be ranked along with terrorism on a list of threats to the nation.”
The UN sees it that way too and thus their action today in putting harm caused by bacteria on equal footing with harm caused by bullets and bombs.
Notice that in all three cases the harm is broader than just death. Antibiotic-resistant infections don’t just kill you, they also do you violence: they scar, cause amputations, necessitate multiple surgeries, stays in the ICU, repeated hospitalizations, and cause infections that once “treated” can lay dormant and strike again at any time even years later. That translates into a lot of pain and suffering, for both the affected individual and for their families. In the US alone, for example, the Centers for Disease Control says at least 2,000,000 people contract resistant-infections every year.
So when Dr. Davies, head of the conservative British medical establishment, publicly states that resistant infections should be ranked with terrorism as a national threat is she exaggerating or does she have it about right?
If your loved-one has died, or is missing a limb, or has been traumatized, should it matter whether it was caused by a bullet, a bomb, or bacteria?
In marshaling our resources to combat harm should it matter any less that with bacteria the violence is silent and unseen?