World must cut pollution to reduce ‘superbugs’, UN says

8th February 2023

Cutting pollution will be key to reducing the emergence and transmission of ‘super bugs’ resistant to antibiotics, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) has said.

In a report published yesterday, the agency lists poor sanitation, sewage, and municipal waste as drivers of antimicrobial resistance (AMR), which can leave modern medicines unable to treat even mild infections.

Higher temperatures, extreme weather patterns and land-use changes that alter its microbial diversity, also drive the development and spread of AMR, according to the report.

This is expected to cause 10 million additional direct deaths every year by 2050 – which is equal to the number of deaths caused globally by cancer in 2020 – and an annual GDP drop of at least $3.4trn (£2.8trn) by 2030.

In response, the report calls for a ‘one health’ approach to AMR that recognises that the health of people, animals, plants, and the environment are closely linked and interdependent.

“The same drivers that cause environment degradation are worsening the antimicrobial resistance problem,” said Inger Andersen, UNEP executive director. “The impacts of antimicrobial resistance could destroy our health and food systems.

“Cutting down pollution is a prerequisite for another century of progress towards zero hunger and good health.”

The World Health Organization lists AMR among the top 10 global threats to health, with 1.27 million deaths directly attributed to drug-resistant infections globally in 2019, and 4.95 million deaths worldwide associated with bacterial AMR.

To prevent and reduce pollutants that contribute to AMR, the UNEP report states that it is crucial to:

1. Increase global efforts to improve integrated water management and promote water, sanitation and hygiene to limit the development and spread of AMR and reduce infections

2. Increase integration of environmental considerations into AMR National Action Plans, and AMR into environmental-related plans, such as national biodiversity and climate change planning

3. Establish international standards for what constitutes a good microbiological indicator of AMR from environmental samples, which can be used to guide risk reduction decisions and create effective incentives to follow such guidance

4. Create robust and coherent national level governance, planning, regulatory and legal frameworks, and establish coordination and collaboration mechanisms

5. Explore options to redirect investments to tackling AMR

6. Environmental monitoring and surveillance and further research prioritization to provide more data and evidence and better target interventions.

Mia Amor Mottley, prime minister of Barbados, said that the UNEP report is another example of inequity, since AMR is disproportionately affecting countries in the Global South.

She added: “We must remain focused on turning the tide in this crisis by raising awareness and by placing this matter of global importance on the agenda of the world’s nations."

Photo by Greg Bulla on Unsplash

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