In a historic first, all 193 United Nations member states have agreed to combat the proliferation of drug-resistant infections

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In a historic first, all 193 United Nations member states have agreed to combat the proliferation of drug-resistant infections, estimated to kill more than 700,000 people a year, including nearly 50,000 a year in the U.S. and Europe. The declaration preceded a special general assembly high-level meeting on drug-resistant bacteria.

Antibiotic resistance has become increasingly alarming in recent years, as even the most powerful antibiotics in the world’s arsenals fail against serious infections. Without action, experts say, we could find ourselves in a world in which simple surgeries expose patients to potentially deadly infections, and drugs that suppress the immune system become useless because of the risk of infection.

Experts from the United Kingdom estimated that antibiotic-resistant infections are on track to outpace cancer by 2050 as a leading cause of death globally. As UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said during the meeting, antimicrobial resistance is a “fundamental threat” to global health and safety.

Just a few days before the meeting, the World Bank announced that unless something is done, the economic impact of the crisis would make it unlikely for the UN to reach its sustainable development goals for 2030, and would affect the global economy as much as, if not more than, the 2008 financial crisis.

“If we fail to address this problem quickly and comprehensively, antimicrobial resistance will make providing high-quality universal healthcare coverage more difficult if not impossible,” said Ban. “It will undermine sustainable food production. And it will put the sustainable development goals in jeopardy.”

The declaration requires countries to develop a 2-year plan to protect the potency of antibiotics, including monitoring and curbing their use in medicine and agriculture and developing new antibiotics. Progress will be assessed after 2 years.

A similar declaration in 2001 on HIV significantly slowed the spread of the virus by ensuring that all countries took responsibility for curbing the epidemic.

The issue is so critical, said World Health Organization Director General Margaret Chan, that given current trends, “a common disease like gonorrhea may become untreatable. Doctors facing patients will have to say, ‘I’m sorry—there’s nothing I can do for you.’”