Scientists: Antibiotic-resistant superbugs are as big a threat as climate change

Two global problems threaten life as we know it

Published May 22, 2014 6:54PM (EDT)

      (Image Wizard/Shutterstock)
(Image Wizard/Shutterstock)

In the rankings of massive problems facing humanity, the emergence of drug-resistant superbugs is rights up there with climate change, infectious disease specialists warned Thursday.

And unlike, say, CNBC host Joe Kernen's suggestion that killer lampreys are a bigger threat than the melting Antarctic ice sheet, or the House Science Committee's apparent belief that the search for extraterrestrial life is a bigger priority than saving our planet, this is one climate change comparison we should probably take seriously. The warning comes from Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust medical charity, and Mark Woolhouse of Edinburgh University's Centre for Immunity, Infection and Evolution, and was published in the esteemed pages of the journal Nature.

"Drugs that were once lifesavers are now worthless," Farrar and Woolhouse write. "Every class of antibiotic is increasingly compromised by resistance, as are many antivirals, antiparasitic and antifungal drugs."

Moreover, they warn, "It could get worse: routine medical care, surgery, cancer treatment, organ transplants and industrialized agriculture would be impossible in their present form without antimicrobials."

The parallels are eerie: a problem caused by human activity, marked by decades of delayed action and missed opportunities, goes from prediction to reality, presenting a global threat to life as we know it.

The solution, Farrar told reporters, could take advantage of those similarities: he and Woolhouse suggest forming a body modeled on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to study the problem and work with governments and agencies to implement its recommendations. Of course, we'd have to hope that the proposed "Intergovernmental Panel on Antimicrobial Resistance" could be more effective at limiting this global crisis that the IPCC, so far, has been. Another parallel they might want to explore is factory farms, source of both rampant overuse of antibiotics and considerable greenhouse gas emissions. Get rid of those, and we'd be attacking both problems at once.

By Lindsay Abrams

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Antibiotic Resistance Apocalypse Climate Change Public Health Superbugs