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Getting ahead of the crises

It’s hard to be optimistic about today’s world. The planet feels like it’s in tatters. There’s the escalating climate crisis that has left much of Southern Europe in flames, regions of the U.S. with dwindling water supplies, heat waves claiming lives worldwide, and the threats from rising sea levels; an ongoing pandemic that shows no signs of relaxing its deadly grip; and an unprovoked savage war launched by Russia. These are just some of the present threats to public safety and the economy. With all that’s going on, the impulse to ignore rather than act on these difficult problems is understandable.

But ignoring them doesn’t make them go away. Action is the appropriate and necessary response. While a pandemic had been predicted, it nevertheless caught the world unready. Systematic underfunding of public health programs – and stockpiling the necessary equipment to handle pandemics, like face masks, gloves, and gowns – resulted in more carnage than if we’d been prudently prepared.

Even when it comes to war, not electing people who coddle the Russian war machine can help.

Clearly governmental preparation and competence are central to reacting to the inevitable crises that arise. Yet, even then, efforts can fail.

For example, scientists have known for decades that the burning of fossil fuels would lead to global warming that could threaten civilization as we know it. However, instead of alerting the public to these dangers, the fossil fuel industries made it worse by their deliberate misinformation campaigns to undermine the science and then to install climate denier toadies into public offices.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) sounded the alarms earlier this month on an often-overlooked issue with its report on the number of American deaths caused by antibiotic resistant “superbugs.” According to the CDC more than 30,000 Americans died in 2020 from these killer “superbugs.”

The CDC tied some of these deaths to the COVID pandemic. According to the CDC, the number of deaths caused by infections impervious to antibiotics and antifungal medications rose 15 percent during the first year of the pandemic compared to 2019. Much of the increase was the result of doctors and nurses struggling to treat seriously ill patients whose disease they did not fully understand. Experts have speculated that the recent growth of antibiotic-resistant infections due to overuse and misuse during the pandemic has wiped out whatever gains had been made to slow the growth of these “superbugs.”

Like the climate crisis, public experts have been warning of the threat of antibiotics resistance for decades. In 1968, a paper published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine detailed how more than a dozen patients and a nurse at a facility became infected with methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, more commonly known as MRSA. It was the first documented MRSA outbreak in the United States and the doctors concluded that “it seems reasonable to predict that [MRSA] will become more widespread in the United States and may present some clinical and epidemiological problems in the future.”

A half century later, the researchers’ conclusions have come true. MRSA is widespread and other more dangerous “superbugs” threaten our health.

Antibiotics are miracle drugs. They treat common infections and make possible modern medical interventions such as chemotherapy, organ transplants, and surgeries. Before antibiotics, more soldiers died of their wounds than died on the battlefield.

But these life-saving drugs are being taken for granted and many bacteria have become resistant to them. Given enough time, bacterial evolution will render every antibiotic ineffective. According to experts, unless new medicines come on the market, by the year 2050 more people will die from “superbugs” than die of cancer. Unless science comes to the rescue, we are entering into a post-antibiotics age.

The future of new medical breakthroughs is, as of now, looking bleak. According to the World Health Organization, development of new antibacterial treatments is inadequate to address the mounting threat of antibiotic resistance. Since 2017 only 12 antibiotics have been approved, 10 of which belong to existing classes with established mechanisms of antimicrobial resistance.

So what to do? The public health strategy should be focused on reducing the overuse and misuse of antibiotics, thus slowing the evolution of “superbugs” while scientific research can catch up. The world’s and nation’s experts have argued for a “One Health” approach to coordinating programs to reduce the speed of the “slow moving pandemic” of the rise of “superbugs.”

Yet no state has embraced the “One Health” approach. Legislation has been introduced to require New York to establish one central coordinating entity to battle “superbugs.” Enactment should be at the top of the list of “must dos” for the next governor.

New York State has often stepped up when national policies have failed. It has done so on climate policies, it can do so again on fighting “superbugs.”

Action, not ignorance, is what we should demand of those we elect to lead.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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