Climate change contributing to spread of antibiotic-resistant ‘superbugs’: UN report

Climate change is heightening the risk posed by antibiotic-resistant viruses, according to research published Tuesday by the United Nations Environment Program.

The report found so-called superbugs have been exacerbated by climate change due to increased bacterial growth caused by warmer temperatures and pollutants that have increased the spread of antibiotic-resistance genes.

The analysis notes that overuse of antimicrobials and pollutants can spread resistance, while contact with resistant microorganisms can create resistance in bacteria already present in air, water and soil. Pollution associated with wastewater, particularly from hospitals, is a major factor, as well as runoff from pharmaceutical production and agriculture, according to the report.

The risk is particularly great for historically polluted waterways, which are more likely to provide shelter for microorganisms that foster antibiotic resistance. A combination of increased pollution and decreased resources for pollutant management has made the problem worse in combination with resistance in health care and agriculture settings.

Meanwhile, 2021 research published in the journal Sci Total Environ suggests urban flooding is also increasing the threat from antibiotic resistance due to disruptions of soil, with the risk possibly lingering for up to five months after major floods or hurricanes.

“While the relationship between environmental pollution and AMR [antimicrobial resistance] and the reservoir of resistance genes in the environment has been established, the significance and its contribution to AMR globally is still unclear,” researchers wrote. “Even so, there is enough knowledge to implement measures to reduce the factors that influence AMR from an environmental perspective; this will also address the triple planetary crisis by addressing sources, sinks and waste.”

The report calls for stronger regulatory frameworks to address the spread of AMR, as well as increased incorporation of environmental factors into National Action Plans for antimicrobial resistance and international standards for signs of antimicrobial resistance.

Policymakers should also develop stronger water sanitation standards, U.N. Environment Program researchers wrote.

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