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Climate Change is Contributing to the Rise of Superbugs, UN Says

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Climate Change is Contributing to the Rise of Superbugs, UN Says. Credit: Chris Aston / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A new report was presented in the 6th meeting of the Global Leaders Group in Barbados on “Antimicrobial Resistance.” In the Bracing for Superbugs report, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) highlighted the impact of climate change and other environmental factors on strengthening microbes and thereby increasing Antimicrobial Resistance.

According to UNEP, “The development and spread of AMR means that antimicrobials used to prevent and treat infections in humans, animals and plants might turn ineffective, with modern medicine no longer able to treat even mild infections.”

Antimicrobial Resistance

Antimicrobials are chemical compounds that are capable of eliminating pathogenic microorganisms including bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Antimicrobial resistance, often known as AMR, is a condition that occurs when microbes become resistant to antimicrobial treatments because they have gained the ability to overcome antimicrobial action.

A rise in antimicrobial resistance indicates that the antimicrobials are no longer effective in killing those strains of microorganisms. This means that those strains of microorganisms have the potential to multiply uncontrollably, causing a variety of diseases and infections in both animals and humans.

According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), as of 2019, it was projected that antimicrobial resistance was responsible for the deaths of at least 1.27 million individuals worldwide.

Each year in the United States there are more than 2.8 million cases of infections resistant to antimicrobial treatment. This results in more than 35,000 fatalities.

For a single strain of bacteria, known as Clostridioides difficile, the total number of infections and deaths in the United States rises to over 3 million and 48,000 respectively.

Impact of Climate Change on AMR

The current state of the climate crisis is making an already alarming phenomenon of Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) even more severe. The rising temperatures, severe floods, and other changes in the environment brought about by climate change are exacerbating AMR by creating conditions that promote the spread of drug-resistant bacteria or superbugs.

Dr. David Graham, a Professor at Newcastle University and UN report author said, “As we get a more extreme climate, especially as it warms, the gradients that drive the evolution of resistance will actually accelerate. So, by curbing temperature rises and reducing the extremity of events, we can actually then fundamentally curb the probability of evolving new resistance.”

According to the findings of the research, not only do greater temperatures hasten the development of germs, but they also hasten the distribution of genes that make bacteria resistant to antibiotics.

Floods of a severe kind are yet another way that the climate issue is exacerbating the problem of antibiotic resistance. When flooding takes place as a direct consequence of climate change, it has the potential to bring about circumstances that include congestion, inadequate sanitation, and increased pollution.

Due to the presence of pollutants in the water, such as human waste, heavy metals, and other pollutants, these circumstances increase the risk of infection and antimicrobial resistance. These pollutants create an environment in which bacteria may evolve resistance to antimicrobials.

Steps to Tackle Antimicrobial Resistance

Addressing AMR and its relationship with climate change requires an interdisciplinary approach by bringing together experts from different fields to find effective solutions.

Overuse and misuse of antibiotics are major contributors to the development of AMR. So, limiting their use is an important step in addressing the problem. Reducing environmental pollution, such as limiting the use of antibiotics in agriculture, is crucial for improving the health of people, animals, plants, and the environment.

Steps to reduce climate change, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions, are also important for limiting AMR. Moreover, governments must play a role in addressing AMR by identifying policies that limit the use of antibiotics and reduce environmental pollution.

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