Resistant bugs

November 22, 2019

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FOR some years now, the irrational use of antibiotics across the world, including in this country, has emerged as a major health crisis. To highlight this concern, events have been held this past week to mark World Antibiotic Awareness Week — observed from Nov 18 to Nov 24. The theme this year is, ‘the future of antibiotics depends on us all’. According to WHO, around 700,000 people die globally every year because the overuse of antibiotics has made common bacterial illnesses more difficult to treat, and regular lifesaving medical procedures such as C-sections and hip replacements riskier to perform. WHO has termed antimicrobial resistance a global health crisis that could cause 10m deaths across the world by the year 2050.

Though increased resistance to antibiotics has emerged across countries of all income levels, the challenges are far greater for states such as Pakistan. Health experts have raised the alarm that with the increased use of antibiotics, consumed with or without prescription, a number of infectious diseases including tuberculosis, food-borne conditions and pneumonia are not only getting harder but almost impossible to treat. These illnesses are already rampant in Pakistan, which, unfortunately, also has the highest rate of neonatal deaths in the world while the maternal mortality rate remains the highest regionally. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Report of 2013, more than 70pc of the infections among newborns in Pakistan are caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Last year, the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention issued a warning that Pakistan could export the XDR typhoid fever — an extensively drug-resistant strain of the illness — believed to have emerged as a result of the overuse of antibiotics in the country. In this regard, the Sindh government, earlier this month, introduced a vaccine for schoolchildren hoping to reduce the prevalence of XDR typhoid that has become endemic in many parts of the province. However, stronger measures are needed such as improving sanitation, cracking down on unqualified doctors and checking over-the-counter sales of antibiotics. Moreover, the widespread use of antibiotics in poultry and cattle farming, and agriculture, also compounds the problem. The federal health ministry had devised a national action plan in collaboration with WHO to curb the overuse of antibiotics; however, so far, there has been no implementation of this due to lack of resources. The authorities need to review the situation before another superbug emerges as a global health risk, posing a threat to lives in and outside Pakistan.

Published in Dawn, November 22nd, 2019