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By Julie Steenhuysen
(Reuters) - United Nations member countries pledged for the first time on Wednesday to take steps to tackle the threat posed by drug-resistant superbugs in a coordinated effort to curb the spread of infections by pathogens that defy antimicrobial medicines.
The pledge during the annual U.N. General Assembly in New York followed years of warnings by global health officials about the rise of drug-resistant infections, which threaten to wipe out all effective antibiotics and antifungal medicines, leaving the world vulnerable to simple infections that once could be easily cured.
"Antimicrobial resistance poses a fundamental threat to human health, development and security," said Dr. Margaret Chan, director-general of World Health Organization, the global health arm of the United Nations.
This marked only the fourth time that a General Assembly had taken up a health-related issue, joining past sessions on HIV, non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, and the Ebola virus.
Drug-resistant pathogens have flourished because of overuse and misuse of antibiotics and other antimicrobial drugs used in humans, animals and crops, as well as the spread of residues from these medicines in the soil, crops and water.
Common infections such as pneumonia, gonorrhea, and post-operative infections, as well as HIV, tuberculosis and malaria, are becoming increasingly hard to treat because of antimicrobial resistance.
In a joint statement, countries pledged to develop national action plans on antimicrobial resistance based on a WHO global action plan developed in 2015. They called for stronger systems to monitor drug-resistant infections and the volume of antimicrobials used in humans, animals and crops, as well as increased international cooperation and funding.
The countries also pledged to tighten the regulation of antimicrobial medicines, increase communication on how best to use them and find new alternatives to such medicines, including the use of better diagnostics to match the right treatment with the right infection, and the use of vaccines to prevent infections.
"The commitments made today must now be translated into swift, effective, lifesaving actions across the human, animal and environmental health sectors. We are running out of time,” Chan said.
"AMR (antimicrobial resistance) is a problem not just in our hospitals, but on our farms and in our food, too. Agriculture must shoulder its share of responsibility, both by using antimicrobials more responsibly and by cutting down on the need to use them, through good farm hygiene," said Dr. Jose Graziano da Silva, director general of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Dr. Jeremy Farrar, director of the medical charity The Wellcome Trust, added that "the rise in drug-resistant infections is a disaster at all levels - from the loss of 700,000 lives each year, to the crushing burden it places on health systems around the world."
At a meeting of global experts on Tuesday in advance of the U.N. declaration, Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said there were "huge challenges in many parts of the world where there is unregulated use of antibiotics" and "very high levels of unrecognized drug resistance."
Dr. Martin Blaser, who chairs U.S. President Barack Obama's Advisory Council for Combating Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria, said the scale of antibiotic use in the world is "enormous," exceeding 300,000 tons a year.
Given that antibiotics are dispensed in milligrams, he said that amounts to 73 billion doses of antibiotics given in the world, or about 10 doses for every man, woman and child in the world.
(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen; Editing by Will Dunham)