All 193 UN member states have pledged to tackle what has been called one of the major health challenges of our time: antimicrobial resistance (AMR).

The declaration will be signed at the UN General Assembly in New York, as global awareness of the issue grows.

“The declaration is the culmination of six years of hard work,” said Professor Dame Sally Davies, England’s chief medical officer. “I am extremely proud that every UN member state is now engaged in the enormous task of tackling the greatest future threat to our civilization.”

 Deaths attributable to antimicrobial resistance every year compared to other major causes of death
Image: BBC

What is antimicrobial resistance?

Infectious diseases are developing resistance to the antimicrobial drugs that we use to treat them. Our misuse and overuse of antimicrobials is accelerating this process. Over prescription and failure to properly complete courses of treatment both allow resistance to develop.

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Animal consumption of antibiotics is also a major problem. Seventy-percent of medically important antibiotics are given to animals – not humans – in the US. Research suggests there is a link between agricultural use and resistance in humans.

Antimicrobials include antibiotics, antivirals and antifungals. Although antibiotic resistance is the perhaps the most well-known, a variety of drug-resistant infections exist.

These are a major problem because they make the drugs we use to treat infections far less effective. Strains of tuberculous already exist that are resistant to most – even all – current drugs.

Drug-resistant infections already cause around 700,000 global deaths. Vulnerable patients, such as the young or old, are particularly at risk.

The global picture

Without action, by 2050 someone could die every three seconds as a result of AMR, says the Review on Antimicrobial Resistance. That’s 10 million people a year.

 Deaths attributable to antimicrobial resistance every year by 2050
Image: BBC

The majority of deaths will occur in Africa and Asia – over 4 million in each region. The estimated death toll for the rest of the world is lower, but could still reach nearly 400,000 in both Latin America and Europe.

Warnings about AMR are nothing new – Alexander Fleming reportedly warned about the development of drug-resistance in his 1945 Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

But now there is hope that action could be coming at just the right time.

“It’s very serious indeed – it’s killing people around the world at the rate of hundreds of thousands a year and we all expect it to get worse if something isn’t done now,” Mark Woolhouse, Professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, told The Guardian. “But the UN is coming in at just the right time, in a sense.”