Growing resistance to antibiotics is as serious a threat to humanity as climate change, and a similarly broad-based activism campaign is needed to prevent disaster, according to England’s chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies.

“It would be nice if activists recognized the importance of this. This is happening slowly and people adjust to where we are, but this is the equivalent to extreme weather,” she said.

“There is not the appetite to develop new medicines. There is a systemic failure. We need something similar to the IPCC.”

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned last year that the effects of climate change could become catastrophic within 12 years without urgent action to control the release of greenhouse gases. Davies argued that antibiotic resistance represents just as great a threat and receives considerably less public attention and official action, according to The Guardian.

Specifically, she cites several causes that haven’t been properly addressed. For one, there are few limitations on overprescription of strong antibiotics. Also, the drugs are used indiscriminately on animals, often just to help them gain weight. While this practice has been banned in the US and EU, it is still practiced elsewhere.

Even medical use for animals builds up resistance to drugs that are critical to human health, though Davies says she has “been convinced” that this use is ethical. But overuse in farming, which includes most of the world’s antibiotic use overall, is one of the main causes of the spread of antibiotic resistant drugs, she warns. They are used in everything from fish farms to spraying on citrus in the US.

A recent UN report indicated this week that drug-resistance could lead to catastrophic health and economic outcomes if not addressed, forcing up to 24 million people into extreme poverty, and wreaking economic havoc equivalent to the 2008 financial crisis. In a worst-case scenario, drug resistance could lead to 10 million deaths per year by 2050.

The report called for stronger rules to prevent antibiotic overuse in both medicine and agriculture. They also called on pharmaceutical companies to “prioritize public good over profit” and develop new drugs, even when it’s less than profitable.

Addressing global sanitation and clean water issues would also limit the growth of antibiotic resistance.

Amy Mathers, director of The Sink Lab at the University of Virginia, said of the report:

“Unfortunately, I think if we don’t do anything differently, the estimates are absolutely realistic…like global warming, the longer we delay action, the worse it’s going to get.”

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