Antimicrobial resistance threatens global health

Elizabeth Harasym
Science & Tech Editor

The human misuse of antimicrobial agents worldwide has led to the emergence of certain antibiotic-resistant microbes, otherwise known as superbugs.

These superbugs pose a critical threat to the realms of human medicine, animal medicine and agriculture, as some infections, due to bacteria, viruses, parasites or fungi, are no longer penetrable to previously successful medications.

Acquired microbial resistance arises due to the mutation in a formerly susceptible organism’s genetic material or to the acquisition of pieces of DNA from other organisms that code for resistance properties.

Antimicrobial overuse and misuse can result in resistant microbes because exposure to antibiotics promotes selective pressure; resistant bacteria survive after antibiotic treatment, proliferate and potentially spread between individuals of a community.

Once innocuous infections have become more serious, as physicians’ options for successful treatments against the infections dwindle, and a lack of effective antimicrobials also threatens the success of medical treatments and surgeries.

The growing number of superbug strains is exacerbated by such widespread use of antimicrobial agents. For example, antibiotics are ineffective against viral infections such as the common cold or the flu, and treating a viral infection with an antibiotic promotes the spread of resistant bacteria within the body.

In addition, animals and crops are often administered large quantities of antibiotics as growth promoters to keep up with an ever-expanding human population. The residues of these medicines can then spread via soil, crops and water.
Among the increasing concerns of microbial resistance, a study published November 2015 in the journal “The Lancet Infectious Diseases” featured research on a strain of Escherichia coli from food animals in China resistant to the polymyxin antibiotic, colistin.

Upon further analysis, the researchers discovered the emergence of the first plasmid-mediated polymyxin resistance mechanism in Enterobacteriaceae, meaning the antibacterial resistant coding genes carried on plasmids can be transferred between bacteria through horizontal gene transfer. This discovery is alarming because colistin is a last-line, unfavorable antibiotic that can even be toxic.

However, it is being used to treat drug-resistant infections, and therefore, this research finding is a chilling reality. This colistin-resistant E. coli strain has since spread to several different countries, including the U.S.

On Sept. 21, the United Nations held a meeting devoted to antibiotic-resistance in New York City. This is only the fourth time the U.N. General Assembly has met in order to discuss health-related issues. World leaders were urged to sign a declaration to combat resistance in their own nations.

The declaration stressed stronger systems to monitor drug-resistant infections and to regulate the volume of antimicrobials used in humans, animals and crops.

It also highlighted the improvement of education and awareness and promoted the best possible practices of medicine and sanitation.

Lastly, the declaration urged for incentives in the development of antimicrobial alternatives and new technologies for diagnosis and immunizations.

The U.N. declaration suggests nations make investments for funding the increase in research of new classes of antibiotics. Margaret Chan, M.D. director-general of the World Health Organization, said of the U.N. General Assembly, “Antimicrobial resistance poses a fundamental threat to human health, development and security.

The commitments made today must now be translated into swift, effective, lifesaving actions across the human, animal and environmental health sectors. We are running out of time.”

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