Humanity once again faces a battle against bacteria.

It is an old foe. Bacteria has plagued humans throughout our time on Earth. Advancements in the 19th and 20th centuries saw us combat off diseases like cholera. Penicillin, found in fungi, saved millions of lives.

The war against bacteria was won, or so we thought. Now a monumental report raises the alarm bells once more. The widespread use of antibiotics is increasing resistance, and fast. In the next few decades the antibiotics we use will become much less effective. At risk are the lives of 10 million people worldwide, each year, by 2050. To compare, cancer kills 'only' 7 million each year.  

Let me debunk a myth.

Humans do not grow resistant to medicine; bacteria do. Antibiotics attack bacteria by preventing them from forming new proteins or damaging cell walls. Those bacteria with a genetic advantage survive the attack, and reproduce. Overtime, resistance to the drug emerges. Superbugs.

When thinking of these 'superbugs', the image shouldn't be of new diseases and a global pandemic. Instead, everyday procedures - hip replacements, Caeserean sections, organ transplants - can suddenly carry extraordinary risk.

It only gets worse if we consider resistance to drugs against parasites and viruses. Some of our main weapons to fight malaria and HIV would be disarmed.

So how do we combat antimicrobial resistance?

First we need to understand where it comes from. We overuse and abuse antibiotics, building resistance along the way. If you have ever:

(a) Taken antibiotics when you're sick, "just in case", without knowing the cause of your illness;

(b) Stopped taking antibiotics once you start feeling better, without following the full dosage;

(c) Pressured your doctor for medicine, even if you might not need it;

then please locate the nearest corner in the room and spend five minutes in quiet reflection on what you've done. Please also get initial comfort in the fact that this applies to almost everyone. Followed by immense discomfort when you remember what I wrote above.

Taking antibiotics when it isn't relevant (when your illness is viral) helps build resistance. Cutting off the medication when you start feeling better means the strongest bacteria survive. These resistant bacteria then reproduce.

Unfortunately, doctors are also to blame. In the US, many are 'rewarded' for signing off lots of drugs to patients. Less malicious, but as problematic, is our inability to properly diagnose illnesses. Rapid diagnostics which determine whether we feel sick because of bacteria or a virus are essential.

Lastly, some of the biggest consumers aren't humans. While the European Union bans the pre-emptive use of antibiotics for livestock, it is widespread practice elsewhere. In the US or China, antibiotics are a normal addition to livestock's daily feed. It lets them grow bigger and faster, but comes at a great cost.

Winning the fight against antimicrobial resistance means preparing - now. A widespread campaign on responsible use of antibiotics is step one. Step two is global cooperation to curtail the spread of resistance. A global challenge requires a global response. Step three is to invest in the research and development of new antibiotics which can counter the new, resistant strains.

The Review on Antimicrobial Resistance outlines the steps to prevent disaster by mid-century. Let us resist the urge to delay.

“If we fail to act, we are looking at an almost unthinkable scenario where antibiotics no longer work and we are cast back into the dark ages of medicine" – David Cameron, Former UK Prime Minister


Tim Dobermann is the Project Lead for Research at SDSN Youth. All opinions expressed on the blog are that of the author and not of SDSN Youth.