antibiotic resistance

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‘There is no higher religion than human service. To work for the common good is the greatest creed.’ When Albert Einstein wrote these words in Maker of universes in 1939, the world was just entering the antibiotic era. Today, the problem of antimicrobial resistance places us on the cusp of a post-antibiotic era, and the idea of ‘common good’ is more relevant than ever as countries come to terms with this reality.

Antimicrobial resistance affects all countries, rich or poor and drugs like antibiotics should be viewed as a shared resource. That’s the gist of Jim O’Neill’s final report on antimicrobial resistance, part of a series commissioned by the UK government. The report ends with a stark warning: unless we act now, by 2050 one person will die as a result of resistance every three seconds.    

The report makes a number of policy prescriptions. Many of the recommendations appeal to the idea of the common good and a shared responsibility for dealing with antibiotic resistance. These include efforts to educate people that they don’t need antibiotics for their sniffle and that improving hygiene can prevent infection, reduce antibiotic use and benefit the health of all.

The difficulty with tackling antibiotic resistance, however, is that every country needs to sign up to a plan of action. In today’s interconnected world, antibiotic resistant bacteria can travel from Nigeria to Canada overnight. And different parts of the world will need different strategies. Banning over the counter sales of antibiotics seems like a no-brainer to those of us living in rich countries. But for people with little access to healthcare, self-medicating with cheap antibiotics can be a lifesaver.

Antibiotic use on the farm is another thorny issue. While feeding antibiotics to livestock is reported to offer only minor productivity gains, farms often operate on razor thin profit margins. The drug industry could receive billion dollar incentives to come up with new antibiotics, but for farms all the talk has been bans on antibiotics in feed. Financial incentives for reducing antibiotic use and pioneering alternatives might work better than bans.

We can all do our bit for the common good by, for instance, ensuring that we finish that course of antibiotics. But if we want to get to grips with resistance, then countries must work together. Forging agreements at transnational bodies is always tricky, but any plan of action has to consider the needs of the richest countries and the poorest as each face a different set of challenges. Now wouldn’t that be uncommonly good?