The New York Times ran an interesting piece yesterday asking who, or what, threatens the U.S. the most. It offered up the usual suspects: the Joint Chiefs of Staff say it’s Russia, the FBI says it’s the Islamic State, and President Obama says it’s nuclear terrorism.
However, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haas, weighed in with an unusual suspect, saying that it might be, among other things, “an Ebola-like pandemic.” He didn’t elaborate and the implication was that whatever this pandemic might be we haven’t yet seen it.
But the health community say otherwise. For example, the UK’s chief medical officer, Dr. Sally Davies, said in an interview with the CBC this year that antibiotic resistance (ABR) – the idea that bacteria are so adaptable they have developed immunity to drugs (antibiotics) devised to kill them – is at least on par with our top threats.
CBC host Michael Enright: “You’ve compared the threat of ABR to the threat of terrorism … and nation-states are activating their resources to counter that. Why are governments so slow to seriously tackle this problem?”
“Let’s be clear,” said Dr. Davies, “In the West and actually across the world far more people are dying of ABR than of terrorism. But somehow it doesn’t seem so shocking. Already, about 50,000 people in Europe and the United States are killed each year by bacteria and other microbes that have developed resistance to the drugs we throw at them.”
And these numbers are expected to climb Davies says: by the year 2050 drug-resistant bacteria could cause as many as 10 million extra deaths globally, surpassing cancer deaths.
Commenting on these numbers, Mr. Enright offered an astute perspective: “If the headlines were about Ebola and not ABR that was going to kill 10m people a year, surely to God there’d be global governmental action.”
“Absolutely,” said Davies. “And if you look at the number dying every year of ABR – how have we let the public become complacent about it? We need to do something.”
But Davies cautioned that solutions won’t come easy.
“What we have to do – it’s a complex, wicked problem – is work on every level: public awareness, government awareness, with the professionals so they don’t overprescribe, the public education about not demanding them when they don’t need them, and see how we can resolve that market failure in the R&D pipeline. This is a really difficult problem.”
“I sometimes lie in bed at night,” Davies continued, “and wonder whether the families of these people who died knew that these were needless deaths, that we should have done something about it.”