Never before has the world focused so much attention on antimicrobial resistance. Antimicrobial resistance? The term sounds like jargon only scientists would use – it is, in fact, a scientific term, relating to the ability of microbes to survive in the presence of antibiotics – but given its recent overwhelming rise, it is a term that is relevant to all people on the planet. Ever since the introduction of the first antibiotic “wonder-drug” penicillin, common bacterial infections like pneumonia and tuberculosis (TB) that were once lethal became treatable. However, as time has passed, bacteria have evolved mechanisms to resist the inhibitory action of these drugs – “antimicrobial resistance” – leaving no treatment option for patients who acquire resistant infections.
The problem spans far beyond those who suffer from resistant infections. Antibiotic usage has potential implications for the environment — as thousands of tons of antibiotic waste are dumped into rivers each year — as well as for the economy. By 2050, antibiotic-resistant infections could “cost the world around $100 trillion in lost output: more than the size of the current world economy, and roughly equivalent to the world losing the output of the UK economy every year, for 35 years.” How is this possible?
That’s what I hope to elucidate, through this blog and through my work. In order to enact policy to combat antimicrobial resistance, the potential implications for society need to be better understood. This summer, I am fortunate to join the Independent Review on Antimicrobial Resistance, chaired by the economist Jim O’Neill, commissioned by the UK Prime Minister and based in the Wellcome Trust. The Review has a global outlook in compiling and designing innovative approaches to combat the problem of antimicrobial resistance (AMR), bringing the issue to the forefront of international attention.
Specifically, I will study the effects of antibiotic usage in agriculture on human health and the agricultural industry. Believe it or not, 29.8 million pounds of antibiotics – over 80% of all antibiotics in the United States – are used in agriculture annually. How is this affecting human health? Why is this usage necessary? Scientists point to antibiotic usage in agriculture as a generator of antibiotic resistance, which may be linked to increased rates of drug-resistant infections in humans. On the other hand, farmers and meat producers argue that antibiotic usage actually keeps the cost of meat production low, due to the growth-promoting and prophylactic effects of antibiotics. It will be crucial to understand the direct implications of regulating antibiotics in animals to resolve this debate.
Now, more than ever, people are pushing for action. My studies will be used not only to inform the AMR Review’s report on agriculture, but also as substantive research for my senior undergraduate thesis. I’m looking forward to sharing my insights with you over the next several months.