Winning the war on superbugs

When a cause doesn’t have a community, it’s hard for people to care about it.

That’s a contributing factor in the fight against antimicrobial resistance, says Steven Hoffman, an associate professor of law and director of Global Strategy Lab at the University of Ottawa.

“There’s foundations and communities for things like breast cancer, lung cancer and Alzheimer’s,” says Hoffman. “There’s no face for antimicrobial resistance. It makes it harder for people to want to fight it.”

Hoffman gave a speech at Dalhousie’s Schulich School of Law on Jan. 29 to talk about antimicrobial resistance and its growing threat to public health.

A problem in all parts of the world, antimicrobial resistance threatens the prevention and treatment of several infections caused by bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi. The pandemic requires governments and society to take action, but so far, superbugs are winning the war.

Nearly 700,000 people die worldwide of superbug infections each year.

According to Hoffman, by 2050, superbugs, a strain of bacteria that grows resistant to antibiotic drugs, will kill more people than cancer. His research estimates approximately 10 million people will die of antibiotic resistance per year if nothing changes, compared with 7.6 million people who now die from cancer each year.

Susan Nasser, a retired social worker, says her 94-year-old father’s recent hospitalization inspired her to attend Hoffman’s talk.

“At first, I thought, ‘What do superbugs have to do with legal work?’” says Nasser. “But he made it very clear that governments and society have a very big role in this.”

Part of the problem with antimicrobial resistance is that it’s invisible and can’t be stopped at borders the way some pandemics can be.

Hoffman says developing a new international treaty with the support of the United Nations General Assembly is an option, but no such treaty has been organized.

Hoffman says the conservation of effective drugs, innovation towards creating new antimicrobials and access for the millions of people without antimicrobials is the only way to successfully tackle the problem.

Between 2013 and 2014, WHO undertook a “country situation analysis” addressing where more work is needed in fighting antimicrobial resistance, but little action has been taken.

“It’s expensive to fix,” says Hoffman. “But it’s costing us more to let the problem go unsolved.”

Heather Webster, a first-year master’s student in Dalhousie’s Health Administration and Law program praised Hoffman’s ability to educate people about antimicrobial resistance.

Webster hopes awareness can turn into action.

“Antimicrobial resistance is an issue that affects all of us now and in the future,” says Webster. “And because we’re not fighting it effectively, it’s only getting worse.”