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U.N. To Take On Antibiotic Resistance At General Assembly


Now it's time for our regular segment Words You'll Hear. That's where we take a word that we think will be in the news next week and break it down. The word this week is superbug. And this is not a new Marvel action movie. We are talking about antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Next week, the topic will take up a whole day at the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York City. It's only the fourth time in history that the General Assembly has gathered to talk about a health crisis. Dr. Keiji Fukuda is the World Health Organization's special representative for anti-microbial resistance and he is with us now from our bureau in New York City. Dr. Fukuda, thank you so much for joining us.

KEIJI FUKUDA: Thank you for hosting me.

MARTIN: The issue of superbugs has been in and out of the news over the past decade. To my mind, at least, there have been pretty dire warnings from the Centers for Disease Control and from the World Health Organization. There have been alarming examples of patients dying of infections that should be easily treatable. Why is the United Nations bringing this up now?

FUKUDA: Well, you know, we see it everywhere. And everywhere that we've looked, we feel that the levels of these untreatable or difficult to treat infections are high. That means we're going to see a lot of people die in the future. It means that we're going to have difficulty taking care of people who need surgery, who are going to have conditions like diabetes or cancer because they're all more susceptible to infections. It's going to cost huge amounts of money, enough money to really set back the global economies.

And, also, we depend on these antibiotics to have sustainable food. It's clear that if we don't begin to reverse it now, it's going to be much harder in the future. And this is why we are having this meeting at the General Assembly.

MARTIN: Two weeks ago, the FDA banned the sale of antibacterial soaps here in the U.S. Is that the sort of action plan you're hoping to see more countries take?

FUKUDA: You know, dealing with soaps and chemicals is one level of action, but we need something much broader than that. What we want to see is that the high level people attending the meetings - and this is basically heads of state - really recognize that we have a large global issue, something on the order of the emergence of HIV or climate change and that they are committed to addressing this.

MARTIN: Could you just give me a couple of more examples of the kinds of things that you'd like to see world leaders take on?

FUKUDA: Sure. The most fundamental issue is that we're simply overusing, sometimes misusing antibiotics and anti-microbial drugs. In order to reverse that, we're going to have to take different kinds of actions, legislation in some countries. We're going to need to have access to better quality medicines inside of countries to begin to turn this around.

MARTIN: To be blunt, though, doctor, is this primarily a problem of the wealthier countries? Because I think it's going to be hard for people to see how in some parts of the world, you know, people don't even have anesthesia, you know? Is this primarily a problem created by the wealthier countries with access to these drugs, overusing them?

FUKUDA: No. In fact, you know, if - the countries that are going to get hurt the worst are the poorer, developing countries. We're talking about infections which are everyday infections, you know - urinary tract infections, blood infections, skin infections. This is developing in everybody's community. It is very much a developing country issue as it is a developed country issue. Here, I think that that distinction just falls apart.

MARTIN: During your time with the WHO, you've seen some dangerous outbreaks from SARS, the H1N1 flu pandemic, the Ebola outbreak of 2014. Now, those are all illnesses that have inspired various degrees of immediate action, mainly because of fear. I mean, let's be honest. But with a slowly mutating bacteria, do you think the public takes this threat seriously?

FUKUDA: I think that many people don't even know that this is an issue, but it's been projected that this is going to kill more people than cancer kills right now by 2050, on the order of about 10 million people per year than it puts in, you know, very stark terms what we're dealing with.

MARTIN: That's Dr. Keiji Fukuda. He's the WHO special representative for anti-microbial resistance. Dr. Fukuda, thank you so much for speaking with us.

FUKUDA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.