News and Opinions  –  2024

Cancer, antimicrobial resistance and community engagement

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Satya Sivaraman
Communications Advisor, ReAct

As someone who has had family members and loved ones battle cancer, I personally know the devastating toll this disease can take. Cancer patients face so many challenges – from the physical and emotional toll of treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation, to the constant anxiety and fear that comes with such a serious diagnosis. But in the last decades, a growing threat has spread that poses an additional, urgent risk to cancer patients worldwide: antimicrobial resistance (AMR).

Photo: Shutterstock.

AMR occurs when bacteria, viruses, fungi and other microbes develop resistance to the drugs designed to kill them. It’s a natural process, but one that has accelerated at an alarming rate also due to the widespread misuse and overuse of antimicrobials, such as antibiotics. Today, drug-resistant bacteria cause over 1.27 million deaths per year. And cancer patients, who often have compromised immune systems from their disease and treatments, are particularly vulnerable.

Imagine being a cancer patient and  told you have also developed a life-threatening infection that cannot be treated because the antibiotics aren’t working due to resistant bacteria. Suddenly you are not only fighting for your life against cancer, but also against an infection that modern medicine is powerless to stop. It’s a terrifying situation.

Indeed, we are nearing a future where routine infections could once again be life-threatening, where chemotherapy and surgery may be too dangerous to undertake, where the incredible progress made in cancer care over the past century could be undone. And as with so many health crises, the impacts of AMR are not equally distributed. The burden falls disproportionately on lower income countries, who have the least resources to address it. AMR both stems from and exacerbates global inequities.

So what can be done?
After years of sounding the alarm, the issue is finally getting high-level political attention. This September, the UN General Assembly is convening a special one-day high-level meeting of member countries to address the global threat of AMR and secure commitments to accelerated action across all sectors and levels.

ReAct – Action on Antibiotic Resistance, the global antibiotic resistance network I have been part of for the last 18 years, recently pointed out that progress since the last UN high-level meeting on AMR in 2016 has been far too slow. We know what needs to be done – from more adequate use of antibiotics to expanded surveillance to investments in R&D for new treatments – but we lack the political will and financial investments to implement at scale, especially in low and middle-income countries that face the greatest risks.

ReAct, in collaboration with other advocacy groups, is calling for dramatically increased funding and prioritisation of AMR at this year’s UN meeting, with a focus on equity. We highlight the need to ensure sustainable access to antibiotics for those who need them (7.7 million die from bacterial infections each year, many of these due to lack of access to antibiotics), while reducing unnecessary use. Enhanced global governance and accountability are also key, supported by better data.

At ReAct we also believe that engaging local communities is absolutely critical. Too often, AMR strategies are designed by experts behind closed doors without input from the people most directly affected. Yet, global agencies working on health have for long emphasised that empowering communities and ensuring their participation is essential for successful implementation of health policies. In this context, we need dedicated funding, not just for national action plans, but for community-led monitoring and local initiatives.

Civil society groups too have vital perspectives to contribute, and can serve both as a bridge between communities and policy-makers, as well as to monitor progress on the ground. By promoting a meaningful, inclusive, and transparent participation of communities and civil society organisations in AMR governance we need to adopt a ‘bottom-up’ approach that complements ‘top-down’ policy efforts.

Satya Sivaraman, Communications Advisor, ReAct

Therefore, ReAct, in collaboration with the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), has launched the campaign ‘From People to Leaders: Act on AMR Now!’ to urge policymakers to set clear, measurable targets for reducing AMR and establish mechanisms for civil society and communities to shape the agenda.
The campaign calls upon Member States and international institutions to address antibiotic resistance (within the broader context of AMR) as a global threat affecting all aspects of life worldwide and that can jeopardise the achievement of several of the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

People living with cancer, and all those affected by AMR, are counting on the world to act with the urgency this global threat demands. The upcoming UN meeting is a critical opportunity for countries to step up that must not be wasted.

The time to act is now!

Note: This blog post was first published on the website of the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC), the oldest and largest global membership organisation dedicated to taking action on cancer.