Climate change to make superbugs worse

A report released today outlines the challenges Australia and the world must overcome to avoid being thrust back into a pre-antimicrobial age where simple infections are deadly, and some surgeries are too risky to perform.

A report released today outlines the challenges Australia and the world must overcome to avoid being thrust back into a pre-antimicrobial age where simple infections are deadly, and some surgeries are too risky to perform. The risk of superbugs in Australia is growing.

Australia is seeing a growing ‘silent pandemic’ of antimicrobial resistance (AMR). This is when bacteria and other microbes become resistant to the drugs designed to kill them, such as antibiotics, usually from misuse or overuse.

The report, Curbing antimicrobial resistance: A technology-powered, human-driven approach to combating the ‘silent pandemic’, calls for greater national coordination and a focus on streamlining commercialisation processes for new antimicrobial resistance solutions and technologies.

It was developed by the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE) and initiated by CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency.

Risks of superbugs to society

Branwen Morgan, Lead of CSIRO’s Minimising Antimicrobial Resistance Mission, said AMR was recently designated one of the top 10 public health threats facing humanity by the World Health Organization (WHO).

“AMR could render some of the most critical antimicrobial drugs ineffective, undermining modern medicine and making us vulnerable to drug-resistant infections,” Morgan said.

“It is responsible for over 1.27 million deaths globally each year, and the number is rising,” he said. “In Australia, modelling suggests AMR could potentially be responsible for over 5000 deaths annually. This report calls out the key challenges and opportunities for Australia to improve how we prevent, detect, diagnose and respond to drug-resistant infections and reduce the impacts of AMR.”

The report drew on the expertise of more than 100 multidisciplinary experts across government, academia and industry and looked at a range of potentially impactful technologies such as:

  • integrated surveillance and sensing solutions;
  • point-of-care diagnostics;
  • vaccination technologies;
  • antimicrobial surfaces; and
  • air sterilisation technologies.

How superbugs could proliferate through climate change

During the briefing, Morgan pointed out that as Australia is subject to an increasing number of extreme weather events, drug-resistant bacteria could proliferate.

“Bacteria and other microorganisms, obviously as things get warmer, they grow faster, and they can spread to previously nonexistent areas. This is because they have the ability to survive there in these warmer climates,” said Morgan.

With these more extreme weather events such as drought and flooding – if you think of going into a flood zone, often then with your rainwater, you might have sewage and stormwater overflows,” he said. “That’s where a lot of these drug-resistant bacteria reside. They’re often hotspots for the evolution and dissemination of drug-resistant bacteria, so you have exposure through those routes.”

Similarly, even when you think of drought events, people then are more concerned about water and water preservation. In some of those basic hygiene activities – washing your hands or not reusing certain water too many times again – you are trying to preserve water. The bacteria can stick around, you’re not washing them away, and therefore the drug resistance can spread,” said Morgan.

Specific examples of how technology could help with eliminating superbugs

Specific examples included surface sprays that change colour when pathogens are present and toilets that detect and disarm harmful microbes before they reach our waterways.

ATSE CEO Kylie Walker said Australia has the potential to be a global contributor in developing technologies to combat AMR and should aspire to be a world leader in its management.

“We have a wealth of creative AMR technology solutions emerging in Australia. We must support these innovations through commercialisation so they can be delivered in the settings they are needed, in a streamlined, sustainable, and coordinated way,” Walker said.

The report supports work underway by the Minimising Antimicrobial Resistance Mission, developed by CSIRO with the Australian Departments of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, and Health and Aged Care.

Morgan said the report highlights the importance of a collaborative, preventative approach to AMR, which is a key tenet of the Mission.

“We aim to work with end-users, academic and industry partners to identify and prioritise solutions that have the greatest impact on preventing and managing further resistance,” Morgan said.

“The report provides thought-provoking and multidisciplinary ways for organisations or groups to tackle the rising challenge of AMR.”

For more information, visit the CSIRO website specialising in the Curbing Antimicrobial Resistance Mission.

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