Health and Healthcare Systems

How we can win the war against antibiotic resistance 

A laboratory worker looks for strains of E.coli bacteria in vegetable cells placed in a petri dish, in La Mojonera near Almeria in southeastern Spain June 2, 2011. A deadly outbreak of E.coli centred in Germany and spreading across Europe is caused by a dangerous new strain, Chinese scientists who analyzed the bacteria said. The scientists said the outbreak, which has killed 17 and made more than 1,500 others ill in at least 10 European countries and is thought to come from vegetables, carried genes making it resistant to several classes of antibiotics. REUTERS/Francisco Bonilla (SPAIN - Tags: HEALTH BUSINESS AGRICULTURE SCI TECH) - GM1E7621PAA01

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria have become a serious threat to global health. Image: REUTERS/Francisco Bonilla

Kristina Lagerstedt
Founder and CEO, 1928 Diagnostics
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

In 1945, Sir Alexander Fleming received the Nobel Prize in Medicine for the discovery of penicillin.

In Sir Alexander’s acceptance remarks, he spoke of the responsibility that accompanied that discovery, namely that antibiotics - despite their power to facilitate medical procedures otherwise difficult to perform without great risk of infection - could eventually cause dangerous problems. He was concerned about the possibility that over time, bacteria could become resistant to those powerful antibiotics, causing ever more lethal infections.

He was right. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria have become a serious threat to global health. Organizations and institutions around the world, including the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations (UN) and many governments, have undertaken joint efforts to prevent antibiotic resistance and they are aware they are fighting against time. There is no question that without serious cooperative action, simple infections that were easily treated with antibiotics in the past could become lethal. In short, without serious attention to this issue, our current healthcare procedures are too weak to win the war against antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

 Despite the risks, antibiotic use is increasing in developed countries
Despite the risks, antibiotic use is increasing in developed countries Image: The Economist

How can we – within the limited time available - protect ourselves from this very real threat to the world’s health?

First, we must move from reactive to proactive behavior. And we must collaborate, sharing our data and best practices to avoid duplication of effort. These efforts are already underway, and by leveraging these actions together with technological options we are approaching a global breakthrough.

Second, by employing new technology for monitoring and diagnostics, we can identify bacteria to prevent potential outbreaks in which an infection in one individual is quickly spread to others. Using available technologies like next-generation DNA sequencing, we can effectively determine whether a particular patient carries a bacteria that could potentially cause proliferation.

Third, we must communicate the importance of this problem, not only within our own professional communities but to every corner of the world, including developing and war-torn areas. The WHO and UN are capable of delivering the necessary messages on a global level, but they need the cooperation of governments and world leaders.

Underlying all these efforts is the power of science. Researchers are continually developing new approaches in their studies of bacteria. By sharing their results, they can multiply the impact of their research. There is also potential advantage in testing theories and sharing the data on newly found resistant mechanisms, merging the results to reveal the best possible solutions. Moving beyond basic chat platforms like Twitter and Slack to more sophisticated and user-friendly means of sharing data should be made standard practice.

Technology and medical technology entrepreneurs, with their dedicated teams and innovations, are among the stakeholders in this effort, along with large research organizations, governments and big corporations. The power of collaboration is obvious, especially because we have limited time to overcome the urgent threat of antibiotic resistant bacteria.

Sir Alexander’s prophecy was correct. It is up to us to develop the tools to turn the challenge of that prophecy into a successful collaboration that keeps our world healthy.

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