News and Opinions  –  2023

Time is ticking – more needs to be done to tackle antibiotic resistance

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Almost 1.3 million people die every year due to antibiotic resistance. The Swedish EU Presidency has highlighted the problem but more needs to be done, says ReAct - Action on Antibiotic Resistance and Médecins Sans Frontières Sweden in opinion editorial published in the Swedish magazine Omvärlden.

Portrait of the four co-authors of the opinion editorial.
Otto Cars, Professor and founder ReAct, Anna Sjöblom, Director ReAct Europe, Peter Moberger, President MSF Sweden, Mia Hejdenberg, Medical Humanitarian Advisor, MSF Sweden. Photo: Therese Holm, ReAct and MSF.

Antibiotic resistance (bacteria developing resistance to antibiotics) is a rapidly growing public health threat worldwide. Effective antibiotics are a cornerstone of modern healthcare such as transplants and cancer treatment. At the same time, lives lost due to resistance increases. In Sweden, more than 500 deaths are caused by untreatable infections annually. Globally, that number is now 1.3 million.

6-7 March, decision-makers and experts from all EU countries will gather outside Stockholm for a high-level meeting on antimicrobial resistance, organized by the Swedish EU Presidency. This meeting comes at crucial time. Despite declarations and pledges, the global use of antibiotics has continued to increase and the spread of resistant bacteria is now accelerating.

In September 2024, antimicrobial resistance will be raised for the second time ever to the highest political level at the United Nations. Until then, political engagement must be mobilized. Greater efforts in relevant sectors such as healthcare, animal health, environment, trade, aid, industry and research are needed. And most importantly, finance ministries must become involved. Action plans without funding remain just plans.

Getting all countries on board will require strong political leadership. In the wake of the work Sweden is currently doing during the EU Presidency, we propose three concrete levers, for the government to prioritize in the coming year to catalyze global political engagement on the issue:

1. Pursue a global agreement on sustainable access and use of antibiotics

Just as clear common goals and regulations have accelerated work to prevent climate change, a global “Paris Agreement” is needed to ensure global access to effective antibiotics in the future. The Covid-19 pandemic led to most countries realizing that addressing cross-border health threats requires more than national action. As a result an international accord on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response is currently being negotiated within the World Health Organization. It will be crucial to ensure that language on how antibiotic resistance should be managed and how work should be financed, is included when this accord is finalized in spring 2024.

2. Increase coordination of research and development of new antibiotics

The scientific, structural and economic problems that have hindered the development of new antibiotics for more than 30 years must be resolved. This will require a new way of both coordinating and funding research and development. A coordinating research institute with long-term, robust funding and a mandate to make research results – including those that fail – available, is needed. The EU is an obvious place to start this work at regional level, even if global coordination should be the end goal. Such an entity should also include the ENABLE structure funded by Sweden.

3. Prioritize antibiotic resistance within development cooperation work

Slowing down the development of antibiotic resistance is a prerequisite for achieving a number of the Sustainable Development Goals. However, global action on antibiotic resistance will never be stronger than its weakest link. It is clearly in Sweden’s own interest to support low- and middle-income countries in efforts to strengthen their health systems. The transition to animal husbandry and food production systems that are less reliant on antibiotics also require urgent action. Antibiotic resistance must become a clear priority in the Swedish development cooperation work and aid, which the government should take into account during the current review of all Swedish development cooperation work.

With these three areas of action, Sweden could increase the global political momentum needed to make next year’s UN meeting the milestone, the world so desperately needs.

Otto Cars, Professor of Infectious Diseases, founder of ReAct 
Anna Sjöblom, Director ReAct Europe
Peter Moberger, President, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Sweden
Mia Hejdenberg, Medical Humanitarian Advisor, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Sweden

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