Sometimes dubbed the “silent pandemic,” Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) is a natural phenomenon that occurs when microorganisms such as bacteria adapt after repeated exposure to antibiotics, rendering treatments ineffective. It has been at the top of the global health agenda for many years, and young professionals in healthcare are acutely aware of it.
Health professional networks worldwide are mobilizing themselves through different avenues in an attempt to empower future healthcare leaders and professionals to fight this emerging crisis. One such example is the International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFMSA)’s organization of the AMR Youth Summit on the margins of World Antimicrobial Awareness Week and in collaboration with World Healthcare Student Alliance. The summit, supported by IDEA Initiative at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, focuses on the role youth can play in tackling challenges presented by AMR through panel discussions with high level speakers, competitions, article presentations, seminars, and training sessions.
One of the many challenges of AMR is that it is not limited to a specific disease or species, and it does not have a single face. Yet, this evolutionary phenomenon plays an ever-present role in modern medicine, and many estimate that, if no action is taken, our future looks bleak. Consequently, it should be of great importance to young people today, not just those working in health, but in any aspect of life.
Why do we even need antibiotics?
Antibiotics and other technologies help not only with treatment and prevention of individual infections but underpin most of modern medicine as well – enabling medical procedures from complex surgeries to routine wisdom tooth extractions, where preventing or treating an arising infection may be necessary. Effective antibiotics possess essential innate value simply by existing, value that the world has grown to take for granted. However, effective antibiotics are not a fact of life. Already 700,000 deaths annually are attributed to AMR. The 2016 O’Neill Report suggested that, without prompt action, AMR could claim as many as 10 million lives annually by 2050 – more than diabetes and cancer combined – with potential economic damage similar to that caused by the 2008 financial crisis.
What is the challenge?
There are many dimensions to the challenge of AMR, but we undeniably need sufficient research and development to ensure we have appropriate treatments and diagnostics to treat and prevent infectious disease, and for these tools to be accessible, available, and most of all, used appropriately.
While we have seen progress in tackling many of these challenges over the last years, progress has been unequal. AMR does not discriminate based on age, but, in a possible future world without effective antibiotics, it will be the youth of today that will carry a significant part of the burden. For example, we risk having no effective treatments to steward or access if we don’t urgently incentivize the development of new antibiotics. Furthermore, in many countries, current reimbursement systems do not recognize the full value of antibiotics, which often hinders health care professionals from prescribing the most appropriate choice of antibiotic for a given patient.
What are the opportunities for youth?
A 2017 Report noted that there were only about 500 scientists active in antibiotics research globally at the time. Collectively, we need to avoid losing global expertise on AMR-relevant research and it will be up to the new generations to help carry the torch. It is clear we need to increase prospective students’ interest in helping solve one of the great global health challenges of our time – whether through pursuing STEM careers, careers in health care, or others.
Raising awareness on AMR and ensuring adherence to the highest standards of stewardship in patient care is equally important. The best way to achieve that is by implementing Antimicrobial Stewardship Hospital Programs that aim for the optimization of clinical outcomes and minimization of unintended consequences of antimicrobial application using the One Health approach. Simultaneously it is very important to make sure that capacity building measures related to the program are implemented with a special focus on targeting final year students, interns, and young healthcare professionals.
However, it is not just the health care professionals, those working in industry, or anybody else directly involved with AMR that can make a difference. As AMR is a borderless threat common to all of us, much like COVID-19, all of us need to play our part. Avoiding the use of antibiotics when these are not needed, such as in viral infections, or following the prescriber’s guidance, are essential. Moreover, youth can act as champions to spread the message further. We have seen strong youth mobilization on climate change; propagation of AMR is a similarly insidious threat that must not be overlooked.
Still, good progress has been made in the fight against AMR in the last years. We now know much more about the threat AMR poses globally, and COVID-19, which took the world by surprise almost two years ago, has sharpened our focus on other global health threats. We see student organizations like the IFMSA actively taking initiatives and engaging with communities worldwide on local, national, and international levels through different projects engaging the population in discourse on different threats to global health including AMR. In parallel, the industry stepped up by establishing the AMR Industry Alliance, a broad life sciences industry coalition to contribute solutions and to measure and drive industry progress on AMR, as well as an industry-led USD 1 billion AMR Action Fund to help bridge the clinical funding gap in AMR-relevant R&D.
Young and future generations must rise to the challenge to help build solutions to address the threat of AMR – be that by working in research, as a health care professional, in industry, or elsewhere. It is an inalienable truth that AMR is an evolutionary phenomenon that will always be present. Luckily, so will the desire of young professionals to change things for the better.
The Global AMR Youth Summit takes place 18-20 November and brings together young health professionals to tackle the challenge of AMR. Join the discussion here.