Global treaty to help save antibiotic medicines from becoming useless against disease

We overuse antibiotic medicines to our peril. The problem is that as the microbes make copies of themselves, then copies of copies, imperfections in the copy-making process will eventually arise that turn out to be advantageous defenses against the medicines we’ve been using. When surviving microbes thrive and proliferate due to those special advantages accumulated over time, and doctors run out of different antibiotics to try, what then?

That’s why medical experts, policymakers, and the scientific community are sounding the alarm: antibiotic resistance is a global crisis facing humanity. An official with the World Health Organization explained as such to StatNews:

“Antibiotics are really one of the miracles of the time that we live in. They are a global good. And they are also a global good that we cannot take for granted,” [Dr. Keiji] Fukuda told reporters.

“By reducing the ability to handle infections, we are really talking about the ability to treat many chronic diseases — diseases like diabetes, like cancer. Patients who have these kinds of diseases are susceptible to infections. … Consequently people are going to have infections for longer. More people are going to die. It’s going to cost more.”

Overuse and misuse of antibiotics against bacterial disease come in various forms, such as using them to treat viral infections, but one obvious target for reform is livestock feed. In fact, as the Center for Global Development noted, only “20 percent of antibiotics used in the United States are used on humans; 80 percent are used in animal feed, mainly to speed growth.”

To help preserve antibiotics for human health, the Center for Global Development’s Charles Kenny and Kimberly Ann Elliott are proposing to curb the use of antibiotics on farm animals to speed their growth, via a global treaty—a tried-and-true method for managing past international problems like the production of ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons:

“One way to do that would be to create an international treaty not to use antibiotics in livestock feed — and probiotics, like those found in yogurt, may be a stepping stone toward that goal. The benefits in terms of slowing the evolution of antimicrobial resistance could be large, while the likely costs are small and manageable.”

For more information, see “What About a Global Treaty to Feed Pigs Yogurt Rather Than Drugs?,” Center for Global Development (2016).