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Europe, U.S. Build Defenses Against Superbugs
May 23, 2014

Closeup of a microbe
U.S. scientists are researching the appearance of anti-microbial resistance in campylobacter, a type of bacteria.

22 May 2014

Tens of thousands of people in Europe and the United States are dying each year from infections that once were successful treated with antibiotics. A trans-Atlantic group is working to develop an effective public health response.

Overuse and misuse of antibiotics have caused the emergence of microbes tolerant of medicines that controlled them in the past. Bacteria have great adaptive capabilities, allowing them to become resistant through mutation or through the acquisition of resistant genes from other organisms.

Resistant microbes are causing significant levels of avoidable illness, leading to unnecessary suffering and excessive health care costs.

U.S. and European health authorities have been working together since 2009 to develop a unified response to contend with this anti-microbial resistance (AMR). They released a progress report in early May.

“We could foresee a future in which our grandchildren may once again begin to die from complications of a mundane infection from a skinned knee,” according to the report from the Transatlantic Task Force on Antimicrobial Resistance (TATFAR), “or in which patients no longer consistently survive routine surgeries. Without the ability to heal infections, medically innovative procedures may be beyond our reach.”

The TATFAR report describes actions taken by the multinational professionals to better control the problem. The panel has developed better communication channels for international health authorities to exchange information about the appearance and transmission of anti-microbial agents. The group is also devising new solutions for diagnostic techniques with greater capability to identify AMR agents.

“This partnership offers a unique perspective to tackle anti-microbial resistance worldwide,” said Jimmy Kolker, assistant secretary for global affairs at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). “We hope that the positive outcomes of this partnership will serve as a global model as we continue to work on this critical issue.”

HHS issued Kolker’s comment upon release of the TATFAR progress report.

Disease can cross borders and oceans as easily as a person boards an aircraft, a fact widely acknowledged among public health authorities worldwide. This recognition has motivated increasing international collaboration among these groups over the last decade.

“Anti-microbial resistance is a priority of the European Commission, and international cooperation is key in addressing this serious cross-border and global health threat,” said John Ryan, acting director for public health at the European Commission. “I am positive that our renewed commitment to TATFAR can make a tangible contribution in the area of global health security.”

The TATFAR report calculated that multidrug-resistant infections resulted in an estimated 25,000 deaths in 29 countries in Europe annually. The U.S. fatality count is estimated at 23,000 deaths per year.

U.S. government scientists from various agencies, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention, have been researching AMR since the 1990s.