“The threat of antibiotic resistance is as great as that from climate change, said Dame Sally Davies, [UK Chief Medical Officer] and should be given as much attention from politicians and the public…

”…Davies said efforts to combat the problem of common illnesses becoming untreatable by antibiotic medicines should be coordinated at a worldwide level in a similar way as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the body of scientists set up in 1988 to tackle global warming…

”…She listed a series of problems that the world has allowed to build up, from overuse of antibiotics and a lack of restraints on prescribing strong medications, to the rampant use of the drugs on animals, including by farmers for “growth promotion”, as the drugs can make animals put on weight faster. Such use has been banned in Europe and the US, but is common elsewhere, and even in the EU and US, the use of strong antibiotics critical to human health is still allowed on animals despite scientific advice to the contrary.” The Guardian

The problem extends to fish farming and is compounded by the lack of interest from the pharmaceutical industry as research into new antibiotics is not as profitable as other areas.

Now research published by Science Daily warns about a further problem. Concentration of antibiotics in rivers are often higher than safe levels and also contribute to resistance:

“Researchers looked for 14 commonly used antibiotics in rivers in 72 countries across six continents and found antibiotics at 65% of the sites monitored. Metronidazole, which is used to treat bacterial infections including skin and mouth infections, exceeded safe levels by the biggest margin, with concentrations at one site in Bangladesh 300 times greater than the ‘safe’ level. In the River Thames and one of its tributaries in London, the researchers detected a maximum total antibiotic concentration of 233 nanograms per litre (ng/l), whereas in Bangladesh the concentration was 170 times higher. The most prevalent antibiotic was trimethoprim, which was detected at 307 of the 711 sites tested and is primarily used to treat urinary tract infections. The research team compared the monitoring data with ‘safe’ levels recently established by the AMR Industry Alliance which, depending on the antibiotic, range from 20-32,000 ng/l. Ciprofloxacin, which is used to treat a number of bacterial infections, was the compound that most frequently exceeded safe levels, surpassing the safety threshold in 51 places. The team said that the ‘safe’ limits were most frequently exceeded in Asia and Africa, but sites in Europe, North America and South America also had levels of concern showing that antibiotic contamination was a “global problem.” Sites where antibiotics exceeded ‘safe’ levels by the greatest degree were in Bangladesh, Kenya, Ghana, Pakistan and Nigeria, while a site in Austria was ranked the highest of the European sites monitored. The study revealed that high-risk sites were typically adjacent to wastewater treatment systems, waste or sewage dumps and in some areas of political turmoil, including the Israeli and Palestinian border.”

There is no doubt that the present economic system produces perverse incentives to increase the use of antibiotics in animals and cut corners in the disposal of sewage. The proposal of making an international effort to prevent resistance makes sense and deserves the urgency given to the climate crisis.