Overusing Antibiotics Could Cost the World Trillions of Dollars

The United Nations says antimicrobial resistance is already taking a toll on our health, and GDP.

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Sep 21 2016, 12:00pm

Testing the susceptibility of Staphylococcus aureus to antibiotics by the Kirby-Bauer disk diffusion method. Image: CDC/Wikimedia

It has become increasingly clear that we're overusing antibiotics, and now it's costing us big money.

Here in New York, the United Nations is ready to take on what has become a global threat. The UN General Assembly High-level Meeting on Antimicrobial Resistance that's set to happen today has a singular message to policymakers: get antimicrobial resistance under control for the sake of the human and economic health.

According to a World Bank report titled "Drug-resistant Infections: A Threat to Our Economic Future," drug-resistant infections are causing economic damage up to 3.5 percent of the global gross domestic product (GDP). Middle and low- income countries could lose up to 5 percent of their GDP. In total, the global economic loss could cost nearly $100 trillion by 2050.

The report emphasized that if antimicrobial resistance continues to spread, several of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are at risk of failure. These goals include missions to end hunger, improve nutrition and food security, promote sustainable agriculture, and reduce inequality within and among nations.

The United Nations General Assembly is happening this week in New York. Image: Patrick Gruban/Flickr

Describing antimicrobial resistance as a "tragedy of the commons," the report claims that antibiotics are used too often in health care, farming, and aquaculture. While some developing countries still need more access to antibiotics, policy needs to ensure they won't be overused.

"Effective antimicrobials are a highly valuable public good that have brought enormous benefits to humanity—and the erosion of this good will impose correspondingly high costs," the report reads. "When antimicrobials started to be used widely about 70 years ago, the rates of death from infection fell by some 80 percent. When drugs stop working because of [antimicrobial resistance], the rates of death and illness could increase back to the levels of pre-antimicrobial era."

In the worst case scenario, high antimicrobial resistance could force an additional 28.3 million people into extreme poverty by 2050, and the majority of them (26.2 million) would be from low-income countries. If this scenario manifests, any progress made thus far to eliminate poverty by 2030 would be undone. Already, the world is on track to reach the target of 3 percent fewer people in poverty within less than 15 years.

In the worst case scenario, high antimicrobial resistance could force an additional 28.3 million people into extreme poverty by 2050.

Increased antimicrobial resistance would also shrink the volume of global real exports—tangible goods and services sold across borders—between 1.1 and 3.8 percent, depending on the severity of the scenario. By 2050, the global cost of health care would increase from $300 billion to over $1 trillion, while global livestock production would decrease by up to 7.5 percent per year.

"Drug-resistant infections, in both humans and animals, are on the rise globally," according to the World Bank press release. "If [antimicrobial resistance] spreads unchecked, many infectious diseases will again be untreatable, reversing a century of progress in public health."

Read more: A Scientist Has a Solution to Antibiotic Resistance—Genetically Modified Maggots

Worldwide governments, including the United States, can begin to alleviate the problem: Policy can be used to reduce antibiotics in farming, and the overprescription of antibiotics by doctors. Right now, even fruits and vegetables are sprayed with antibiotics, as Motherboard reported recently. Overall, public attitudes about antibiotics need to change in order to support new governmental policies regulating them.