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Antibiotic-resistant superbugs are the biggest global health threat, UN says

The world is taking unprecedented steps to address the rise in antibiotic resistant infections during a summit at the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday.
Photo de Francisco Bonilla/Reuters

The biggest threat to global health isn't another Ebola outbreak or the spread of the Zika virus; rather, it's the spread of antibiotic resistant "superbugs," according to the United Nations, which announced an agreement Tuesday with 193 member countries to fight the overuse of antibiotics.

Details about the highly anticipated agreement came together early Tuesday and member states reaffirmed their support during a summit on antimicrobial resistance later in the morning at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. This was just the fourth time in history that the UN has hosted a high-level meeting focused on health concerns. Previous issues discussed at the highest level include Ebola, HIV, and noncommunicable diseases.


"Antimicrobial resistance threatens the achievement of the sustainable development goals and requires a global response," said Peter Thomson, the president of the 71st session of the UN General Assembly.

Through the agreement, countries committed to establishing stricter regulations for antibiotic use, while also encouraging innovation for antibiotic alternatives and illness-preventing vaccines. Tuesday's declaration also pledges to create monitoring systems for infections and the use of antibiotics on people, animals, and crops.

The low cost of antibiotics have made them a global favorite for treating illness, despite warnings from experts that their use could cause drug resistance. Around the world healthcare providers are seeing an increasing number of these type of super-bug infections, which present extreme challenges to the medical system when even last resort treatment options can prove ineffective.

Currently, an estimated 23,000 people in the US and 700,000 people globally die each year due to antimicrobial resistant illnesses or infections, according to the UK government. That death toll could rise to 10 million by 2050, according to the antimicrobial resistance review.

By signing onto the declaration, governments and intergovernmental organizations like the World Health Organization are taking on more responsibility and committing to playing a major role in the fight against antibiotic resistance and superbugs.

"No one country, sector or organization can address this issue alone," Thomson said.