A recent UNEP report, Bracing for Superbugs, examines the relationship between climate change and superbugs. Antimicrobial products kill or slow the spread of microorganisms. They are an essential tool in battling infectious diseases. However, their effectiveness is now at risk because several antibiotic, antiviral, antiparasitic and antifungal treatments no longer work because of antimicrobial resistance (AMR). These bacteria, viruses and fungi that do not respond to antimicrobials are called superbugs.
WHO estimates that by the year 2050, up to 10 million deaths could occur each year due to AMR and has significant implications for economic development and may push many people into poverty.
AMR can be linked to the triple planetary crisis – climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution and waste.
Climate change: higher temperatures are associated with a higher frequency of horizontal gene transfer, a process that includes spreading antibiotic resistance genes among bacteria. The climate crisis also contributes to the emergence and spread of AMR in the environment due to the continuing disruption of the environment due to extreme weather patterns.
Biodiversity loss: Biodiversity and ecological systems are necessary for planetary health. Human activity and climate change have altered soil microbial diversity in recent decades. The loss of microbial diversity could lead to antibiotic resistance.
Pollution and waste: It has been found that antimicrobial resistance genes are highly correlated with contaminated environments leading to higher AMR. The environmental contamination comes from discharges of both treated and untreated human and animal excreta; releases of chemical waste (including those from pharmaceutical manufacturing), and disposal of unused and expired antibiotics. Plastic pollution also harbours resistant microbes.
The impact of AMR can be seen across several SDGs – 14. Life below water; 15. Life on Land; 1. No Poverty; 10. Reduced inequalities; 8. Decent Work and Economic Growth; and 17. Partnerships for the goals.