While antibiotic drugs like penicillin have saved countless lives and eliminated most public health threats like syphilis, there is a darker side to these miracle cures – the worsening global trend of antimicrobial and antibiotic resistance, which in turn has led to the creation of drug-resistant bacterial strains known as “superbugs”.
And while doctors and scientists race to find new forms of antibiotic medication to treat these developing illnesses, there’s another aspect to antimicrobial and antibiotic resistance that needs to be addressed – the issue of pharmaceutical companies and environmental pollution.
With most antibiotics being manufactured in countries like India and China, the environmental legislation, regulations and enforcement that should be preventing cases of pollution like the one discovered in Hyderabad in 2009 often differ substantially from region to region, making it difficult – if not impossible – for individuals to know at a consumer level what the environmental impact of their pharmaceutical medications really is.
And with the World Health Organization naming antimicrobial resistance, or AMR, “one of the top threats to mankind” – the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control estimates that roughly 25,000 patients die each year from drug-resistant bacterial infections – the environmental, social, and economic costs of this epidemic are astronomical.
While not much reliable data exists on the subject now, research suggests that antimicrobial resistance is an even bigger problem in developing countries than it is in the developed world. In India, it has been estimated that roughly 60,000 newborn babies die each year due to antimicrobial resistance.
A 2014 New York Times article reported on a case of 13 women in India receiving tainted drugs after a fairly standard surgery, with fatal results. Shortly after that, an investigative report by China’s state television, CCTV, revealed a report on antibiotics found in numerous cities’ municipal water supply. The report noted that pharmaceutical companies – specifically the producers of antibiotic drugs – were illegally discharging waste into the municipal water supply, making the water unsafe to drink.
Moving Forward, Things Need To Change.
Pharmaceutical companies have a significant role to play in the global battle against antimicrobial and antibiotic resistance. From reforming waste management in order to curb the illegal discharge of waste water to ensuring that all the equipment in their labs is up to date and compliant with federal standards, it is important for pharmaceutical companies to take action and lead through example towards a safer future, especially for communities in developing countries.
But to rely on pharmaceutical companies to self-regulate in the best interest of (largely impoverished) communities without some external pressure would be foolish. The responsibility also lies with government bodies who have the power to pass stricter regulations, with firmer, more frequent enforcement. And the tide is turning; in recent years, product recalls and import bans implemented by the US Food and Drug Administration have been on the rise, along with warning letters and online enforcement activities.
And other countries besides the US are taking action as well – in China, Premier Li Kequiang has issued statements indicating that environmental protection is a real priority for the Chinese government. Regulators in China have been working in the past two years to shut down production plants that have been producing illegal pollution, in accordance with stricter environmental legislation.
Overuse of Antibiotics…
Improved market regulation is needed to stop the sale of over-the-counter antibiotics in India and China, which would significantly help prevent misuse. Prudent use of antibiotics should be a major priority for healthcare providers and the bodies that oversee them. Abuse of antibiotics can also be curbed with proper public health education about antibiotics – an example of which being the Canadian “Not All Bugs Need Drugs” campaign. Pharmaceutical companies have a real role to play in this education as well.
The pharmaceutical industry has had increasingly bad publicity in recent years – “big Pharma” is often referred to as a villain, especially by more holistic-minded practitioners. But there is a real chance for the pharmaceutical industry to make a huge impact and improvement in global health – especially in developing countries – by joining the fight against antimicrobial resistance. Improved self-regulation, more money and resources towards public health education, and higher industry standards are only the first steps that need to be made.
- https://ecdc.europa.eu/en/publications/Publications/0909_TER_The_Bacterial_Challenge_Time_to_Rea ct.pdf
- https://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/04/world/asia/superbugs-kill-indias-babies-and-pose-an-overseas- threat.html
- https://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/15/world/asia/india-sterilization-deaths-linked-to-antibiotics-rat- poison.html
- https://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/18/world/asia/li-keqiang-chinas-premier-offers-plan-of-economic- and-social-reforms.html
- https://www.fda.gov/Drugs/GuidanceComplianceRegulatoryInformation/EnforcementActivitiesbyFDA/ WarningLettersandNoticeofViolationLetterstoPharmaceuticalCompanies/ucm432949.htm