AMR: The health crisis waiting to happen

The Coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on our world, but there is another future health crisis waiting in the wings; antimicrobial resistance poses an immeasurable threat to human life, writes Nicolae Ștefănuță.
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By Nicolae Stefanuta

Nicolae Stefanuta (RO, RE) is a member of Parliament’s Special Committee on Beating Cancer

26 May 2020

The problem with crises is not that they are hard to foresee, but rather that we often choose to ignore expert warnings.

This was the case with the Coronavirus pandemic - the World Health Organization issued warnings on the imminence of a pandemic years ago.

Governments around the world ignored these, and the crisis was augmented by the lack of preparedness of medical systems.


Next in line could be a crisis caused by antimicrobial resistance (AMR) - something we have known about for years. If we do not act now to tackle this threat, we could face many more Corona-like crises in the near future.

In Romania, we have a saying: “Wise people build their sledge in the summer”. AMR is a threat to human life that knows no boundaries, and has the potential to reverse decades of medical progress to pre-antibiotic times, when a seemingly small flesh wound could become infected and potentially lead to death.

Today, bacteria resistant to antimicrobial treatment cause the premature deaths of nearly 33,000 European citizens every year.

“If we do not act now to tackle this threat, we could face many more Corona-like crises in the near future”

If we do not join forces to tackle this problem at European and international levels, the number of lives lost will only increase over time.

It is projected that by 2050, the number of lives lost to resistant bacteria worldwide will be around 10 million per year, surpassing those of cancer deaths.

Antibiotics have paved the way for modern medical treatment such as heart surgery or transplants, procedures that were unthinkable a century ago and are now possible in part due to our heavy reliance on antibiotic treatment.

Nevertheless, the supremacy of our antibiotic is slowly fading; there are fewer and fewer new antibiotics being developed, while the number of resistant bacteria, also called “superbugs”, is only poised to increase.

The cause of this situation is the large-scale use of pharmaceutical products for human or animal use combined with the continued reliance on chemicals in different sectors of the economy, like pesticides.

We are locked in an arms race with these “superbugs” and, unfortunately for us, we are slowly but surely losing the fight.

That is why, alongside my colleagues from the European Parliament, I have launched an interest group on AMR, with the aim of tackling this cross-border challenge.

As politicians, we need to get the science right. That is why our top priority is to have strong connections with all relevant stakeholders in the field, putting scientific data first.

The One Health Action Plan is an approach that aims to address the causes leading to the rise of AMR. These include excessive use of pharmaceutical products, mainly (but not limited to) antibiotics in human and animal medicine (70 percent of all antibiotic use), lack of financial incentives for the industry to research and develop new generations of antibiotics and closing the knowledge gap on the impact that the environment has over the spread of AMR.

Although the Commission’s One Health Action Plan paves the way for how Member States should adopt a holistic approach to tackling AMR, we need to do much more if we want to reverse the current trend.

“It is projected that by 2050, the number of lives lost to resistant bacteria worldwide will be around 10 million per year, surpassing those of cancer deaths”

In this regard, I have proposed a results-based AMR fund with the aim of developing traceable policies at national and European levels. The idea comes from the need to have a common response across Member States.

Let us say, for example, that one Member State has a proactive approach to addressing AMR, whereas other Member States lag behind. AMR, being a crossborder threat, puts our Union in a precarious position; we only need to look at the current Coronavirus pandemic to see first-hand the impact that a rapidly transmissible disease can have.

We need a common EU AMR policy in order to have a coordinated response across all Member States and for that we need dedicated funds.

However, the key to solving this problem is not throwing money at it, but making sure that each Euro spent has a quantifiable return on investment. Here I believe that any AMR fund needs to be results-based.

We need to have traceability and accountability to measure progress and to ensure that political action is evidence- based.

These funds are needed in order to encourage industry to develop new antibiotics and environmentally friendly pharmaceutical products in the first place.

Second, it is crucial to support Member States in developing and implementing National Action Plans that aim to tackle the spread of AMR.

These plans should include national reduction limits for the use of antibiotics and other pharmaceutical products for humans; they should also include measures aimed at supporting farmers to improve living conditions for animals, thus limiting the mass use of antibiotics as a preventive treatment.

We can preserve our current way of life and maintain our antibiotic supremacy if we choose to act in due course.

Only through proper funding and a common EU-wide political agenda against AMR can we hope that the days when a simple paper cut could have potentially lethal consequences remain a simple historical curiosity.

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