Director-General's Office

WHO Director-General addresses UN General Assembly on antimicrobial resistance

Dr Margaret Chan
Director-General of the World Health Organization

New York, USA
21 September 2016

Excellencies, distinguished delegates, colleagues in public health, ladies and gentlemen, antimicrobial resistance is a global crisis – a slow motion tsunami. The situation is bad, and getting worse.

Last month, an increase in the number of drug-resistant pathogens forced WHO to revise its treatment guidelines for chlamydia, syphilis, and gonorrhoea. On current trends, a common disease like gonorrhoea may become untreatable. Doctors facing patients will have to say, "Sorry, there is nothing I can do for you."

The crisis can be succinctly summarized. The misuse of antimicrobials, including their underuse and overuse, is causing these fragile medicines to fail. The emergence of bacterial resistance is outpacing the world’s capacity for antibiotic discovery. Over the past half century, only two new classes of antibiotics reached the market.

With few replacement products in the pipeline, the world is heading towards a post-antibiotic era in which common infections, especially those caused by gram-negative bacteria, will once again kill.

Superbugs, resistant to nearly all currently available medicines, already haunt hospitals and intensive care units in every region of the world. Nearly all of us know someone who underwent a routine operation only to die from a hospital-acquired infection.

Last year, the World Health Assembly approved a global action plan for combatting antimicrobial resistance. What we must see now is the action.

The pharmaceutical industry is reluctant to invest in costly antibacterial discovery. The return on investment is poor, as antibiotics are taken for a short time, cure their target disease, and can fail after a brief market life.

Incentives must be found to re-create the prolific era of antibiotic discovery that took place from 1940 to 1960. Consumers have to stop demanding antibiotics when they have a viral infection, like a cold or the flu. Doctors have to stop prescribing them.

The medical profession needs better diagnostic tests, so that antibiotics are prescribed only on the basis of a firm diagnosis. More vaccines are needed to prevent infections in the first place.

The food industry needs to reduce its massive use of antibiotics, at sub-therapeutic doses, as growth promoters. Specific antibiotics, listed by WHO as critically important for human medicine, should not be used in animal husbandry or agriculture.

Consumers should make antibiotic-free meat their preferred choice.

All of these actions are urgently needed.

The World Health Organization welcomes this high-level meeting. A global crisis of this magnitude demands attention at the highest political level.

Thank you for recognizing the importance of this issue.