"Take a few antibiotics, you'll be fine in a few days." How often have we heard that advice?
But what may seem a quick and easy route out of sickness, is increasingly looking a dangerous one. And with a mounting price tag.
Every time a person or animal is treated with an antibiotic, some of that drug, often over two-thirds of what is taken, gets excreted into the environment. Once in the environment, in soil or water, these drug residues allow drug-resistant organisms to gain a foothold, increase in numbers, and subsequently spread to infect humans, animals and plants.
Antibiotics are just one type of antimicrobials. An antimicrobial is any substance - natural, semisynthetic or synthetic - that kills or inhibits the growth of microorganisms, such as bacteria, viruses, protozoa and fungi. They are found in pharmaceutical drugs such as antibiotics, antivirals and antifungals and in antiseptics, disinfectants, and personal care products.
"While antimicrobial drugs are critical to protecting human and animal health, their misuse, including in the livestock sector, aquaculture and crop production, creates residues in our ecosystems. This pushes the environment out of balance, which in turn provides greater opportunity for drug-resistant organisms to flourish," said Susan Gardner, Director of Ecosystems for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
Antimicrobial Resistance or AMR occurs naturally. It is the ability of organisms to resist the action of pharmaceutical drugs that are used to treat such illnesses. But, overuse or misuse of antimicrobials, including antibiotics, tips the scales and can lead to a global environmental and health crisis.
AMR is rising as antibiotics become more widespread in agriculture and food production. For example, antimicrobials are often used to boost animal growth for meat, then excreted into animal manure and find their way into the food chain. Likewise, antibiotics used in food production, seep back into the soil as agricultural run-off.
The issue is made worse by poor waste management practices in many households, farms, factories and healthcare facilities. Antimicrobial-resistant microbes spread through the environment as antibiotic-rich animal feed and contaminated wastewater, sludge and manure enter waterways and soils.
As anti-microbial resistance grows, the world is in danger of creating a new generation of "superbugs" - resistant to more than one drug class. Already today, drug-resistant infections kill one person every minute. According to health experts, the figure could soon climb much higher. An estimated 700 000 people die each year from AMR infections and an untold number of sick animals may not be responding to treatment.
To highlight the critical role the environment plays in the global threat posed by antimicrobial resistance (AMR), UNEP is supporting World Antimicrobial Awareness Week which runs from November 18-25 2020.
Together with its partners the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), and the World Health Organization (WHO), UNEP is calling on all sectors of society to rally around a bold, unified agenda to defeat this global health, sustainability, and developmental threat.
"To stay ahead of antimicrobial resistance, countries must put in place policies that encourage agricultural best practices that prioritize preventing infections. UNEP and partners also support a 'One Health' approach, which recognizes that human, environmental and animal health are inextricably linked," said Susan Gardner.
The issue is receiving attention not only from policy makers at the highest level but also young people. World Antimicrobial Awareness Week also hosted the first Global AMR Youth Summit, where youth leaders and activists came together to discuss how AMR impacts their future.
At the opening ceremony of the event, Satya S Tripathi, UN Assistant Secretary-General and Head of New York Office, emphasised: "The leadership of young people at all levels and their knowledge, enthusiasm, imagination and activism will be invaluable to the world as it gears up to mitigate the AMR crisis through an action-oriented 'One Health' agenda."
For more information on World Antimicrobial Awareness Week 2020, click here