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WHO outlines global plan to tackle growing resistance to antibiotics

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The World Health Organization (WHO) is marshaling resources to fight the growing threat of antimicrobial and antibiotic resistance. Earlier this week, member states of the United Nations gave unanimous support to a plan to fight what the WHO calls a "serious threat to global public health." The plan's objectives include better control over the use of existing antibiotics, tracking how resistance is developing and supporting investment into new drugs. Countries are expected to have national action plans addressing these points in place by 2017.

"We may be a bit late," Sally Davies, the UK's chief medical officer and the leader of the WHO's discussion of the plan, told The New York Times. "If you look at the trajectories of rising antimicrobial resistance, increasing use of antibiotics and a lack of new antibiotics, this could be a catastrophe."

One study estimates that drug-resistant infections could kill 10 million a year

Medical experts have warned that antimicrobial resistance or AMR (a broad term that includes antibiotic resistance) could put back the field of medicine years, returning the world to a time when small injuries — scratches, even — can kill because of infection. Around 700,000 people a year currently die from drug-resistant infections, but a study carried out for the UK government last year by former Goldman Sachs chief Jim O’Neill suggested this figure could rise to 10 million by the year 2050, costing the global economy up to $100 trillion in the process.

Part of the difficulty of fighting AMR is encouraging pharmaceutical companies to develop new drugs. Because antibiotics are only taken for short amounts of time and are sold at relatively low prices, they represent a bad investment for companies, not actually making a profit until 23 years after they're created. A solution proposed by O'Neill's report is to pay companies upfront for their work (up to $2 billion at a time), but it's not clear if any countries backing the WHO's plan will be willing to follow this suggestion.