‘With 700,000 people losing battle to antimicrobial resistance (AMR) per year and another 10 million projected to die from it by 2050, AMR alone is killing more people than cancer and road traffic accidents combined together.’ This was highlighted in the Review Article, ‘Antimicrobial resistance in the environment: The Indian scenario,’ published in the Indian Journal of Medical Research (IJMR), on June 03, 2019.
The article further noted, ‘AMR engendered from the environment has largely remained neglected so far,’ which has a snowballing effect. Illustrating the enormity of its impact, the researchers recorded: ‘Economic projections suggest that by 2050, AMR would decrease gross domestic product (GDP) by 2-3.5 percent with a fall in livestock by 3-8 percent, costing USD100 trillion to the world.’
Besides International media, fearsome consequences of AMR are also being highlighted by the Indian media from time to time. For example, on November 21, 2018, a leading national business daily carried an apt headline: ‘India in the firing line of antimicrobial resistance.’ More intensive coverage of such nature for this public menace, would hopefully appeal to the conscience of all those who can meaningfully address this situation, especially the government.
Against this backdrop, I shall explore in this article, whether India is really in the eye of this AMR storm, which is posing an unprecedented threat to many lives, perhaps more in India.
India is being called the AMR capital of the world:
Analyzing the emerging research data in this area, India was referred to as ‘the AMR capital of the world,’ in the 2017 Review Article, title ‘Antimicrobial resistance: the next BIG pandemic.’ Curiously, besides umpteen number of published papers documenting this scary development, very few enlightened individuals would dare to push an argument to the contrary. Whereas, besides framing a policy document on AMR,nothing much is changing in India on this score. This is happening, even when it is evidenced that a gamut of the most powerful antibiotics, are not working against many deadly bacteria. Added to it, India still doesn’t have a public database that provides death due to AMR.
Are adequate resources being deployed to fight the menace:
Today one would witness with pride that India’s ‘Chandrayaan 2’ lunar mission is moving towards the Moon’s south polar region, where no country has ever gone before. At the same time, despite AMR threat, India’s budgetary allocation for health in 2018-2019, reportedly, shows a 2.1 percent decrease of the total Union Budget from the 2.4 percent in 2017-2018.
It is interesting to note that India: ‘Despite being the world’s sixth largest economy, public health spending has languished at under 1.5 percent of GDP, one of the lowest rates in the world. For comparison, the United Kingdom shelled out 9.6 percent of its GDP in 2017 on health. The United States’ health expenditure is 18 percent of GDP.’
‘Ayushman Bharat’ and health care infrastructure:
Recently lunched public health program - Ayushman Bharat, although is not a Universal Health Care (UHC) program, it has targeted to cover ‘less than half the population and excluding 700 million people’. While giving a thumbs-up to this initiative, if one looks at the overall health infrastructure in India to make it possible as intended, it may not encourage many.
To illustrate this point, let me quote only the salient points, as captured in a 2018 study, published in the British Medical Journal, as follows:
- The total size of health workforce estimated from the National Sample Survey (NSS) data was 3.8 million as of January 2016, which is about 1.2 million less than the total number of health professionals registered with different councils and associations.
- The density of doctors and nurses and midwives per 10,000 population is 20.6 according to the NSS and 26.7 based on the registry data.
- Health workforce density in rural India and states in eastern India is lower than the WHO minimum threshold of 22.8 per 10,000 population.
- More than 80 percent of doctors and 70 percent of nurses and midwives are employed in the private sector.
- Approximately 25 percent of the current working health professionals do not have the required qualifications as laid down by professional councils, while 20 percent of adequately qualified doctors are not in the current workforce.
The intent to deliver health care as announced by various governments from time to time is good. But, the available health infrastructure to deliver these meaningfully are grossly inadequate, creating a huge apprehension among many. This is not just because of the grossly inadequate number of hospitals, doctors, nurses and paramedics, but also their even uneven spread in the country. The cumulative impact of these, fueled by corruption, ‘missing doctors, ill-equipped health professionals, and paucity of required funds’ continue creating a humongous problem for the public, at large, to get affordable health care.
At the same time, there is ‘a serious lack of new antibiotics under development to combat the growing threat of antimicrobial resistance.’ Imagine, a situation when India gets caught in the eye of the AMR storm and imagine the consequences of that, as you deem appropriate.
Lack of new antibiotics under development to combat AMR:
The World Health Organization (WHO) report - ‘Antibacterial agents in clinical development – an analysis of the antibacterial clinical development pipeline, including tuberculosis’, launched on September 20, 2017 shows ‘a serious lack of new antibiotics under development to combat the growing threat of antimicrobial resistance.’
It further reported: ‘Most of the drugs currently in the clinical pipeline are modifications of existing classes of antibiotics and are only short-term solutions.’ The report also found, very few potential treatment options for those antibiotic-resistant infections identified by WHO as posing the greatest threat to health, including drug-resistant tuberculosis which kills around 250 000 people each year.
Thus, the point to ponder simultaneously is, whether there is any decline in global investments for antibiotic research, both by the drug industry and the public funders.
Declining investment on new antibiotic R&D:
As stated in the May 2016 paper, titled ‘Tackling Drug-Resistant Infections Globally. As the report indicates: ‘The UK Prime Minister commissioned the Review on Antimicrobial Resistance to address the growing global problem of drug-resistant infections. It is chaired by Jim O’Neill and supported by the Wellcome Trust and UK Government, but operates and speaks with full independence from both.’
The report acknowledges that new antibiotic research and development has been suffering from decades of under-investment by companies and governments. The reason being, antibiotic discovery and development are no longer an attractive proposition for commercial drug developers, for a key fundamental reason:
And this is, lack of a dependable, commercially-attractive market for antibiotics that meet large unmet medical needs. As a result, the volume of sales of a such new antibiotics will be low, and restricted only to multi-drug resistant bacteria. Otherwise, older and cheaper antibiotics will still work against most other infections. In that scenario, patented new antibiotics will have to compete with generics, keeping the price low. This combination of price pressure and low volumes makes antibiotics unattractive as a commercial proposition for many drug developers.
Which is why, as the report says: ‘Less than 5 percent of venture capital investment in pharmaceutical R&D between 2003 and 2013 was for antimicrobial development.’ Against total venture capital investment of USD 38 billion in pharmaceutical R&D, antimicrobial venture capital investment was mere USD 1.8 billion, during the same period. Coming back to India specific concerns, let’s have a look at the sociocultural issues in the country, associated with AMR.
Sociocultural issues are fueling the fire:
Understandably, the AMR problem remains intricately intertwined with a number of sociocultural issues of India. It has been established in several studies that social level, socioeconomic and socio-cultural status can play a significant role in the health status of people. Most research done on this subject indicates that higher level of socioeconomic classes reflects at a higher level of health and longevity. Much of this comes from the fact that there is a higher level of education and health care that is available for ‘this class level’.
Sociocultural issues in India also includes, poor hygienic practices, inadequate clean water and good sanitation facilities across the country, besides improper implementation and lack of good governance of health policies, rules and regulations. These factors are also aggravating the AMR problems in the country, as stated in the article, titled ‘‘Public Health Challenges in India,’ published in the Indian Journal of Community Medicine, in its April-June 2016 issue. Which is why, just addressing the indiscriminate use of antibiotics and restricting its wide consumption, aren’t not enough, any longer.
Is India in the eye of the AMR storm?
‘Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) has emerged as a major threat to public health estimated to cause 10 million deaths annually by 2050. India carries one of the largest burdens of drug-resistant pathogens worldwide.’ This was highlighted in the research paper, titled ‘Antimicrobial resistance: Progress in the decade since the emergence of New Delhi metallo-β-lactamase in India’, published in the Indian Journal of Community Medicine, on March 12, 2019.
The article noted, ‘AMR has been identified as a global health threat with serious health, political, and economic implications.’ The paper concluded with a serious note, which is worth taking note of. It found, the full throttle efforts to tackle the AMR challenge in India still requires significant efforts from all stakeholders. It underscored, ‘Despite the adoption of a national policy and significant activities already underway, progress is limited by a lack of clear implementation strategy and research gaps.’
Suggested areas of focus in India:
As ‘the Sword of Damocles’, in the form of AMR, hangs over the head of Indian population, there are certain important measures that the country can definitely take to contain AMR, whereas some other critical ones will be challenging to roll out, immediately.
It is unlikely, during this period India will have the requisite wherewithal to focus on discovery and development of new antibiotics to tackle AMR. Similarly, only framing rules and regulations for doctors, patients, dispensing chemists or hospitals to prevent antibiotic misuse, which are not persuasively yet strongly implemented, won’t also yield desired results. Nevertheless, efforts must continue for their effective compliance.
That said, what the country can seriously focus on, sans much constraints, is on taking collective measures in resolving some of the crucial but intimately associated sociocultural issues, with all sincerity and precision. A few of these important areas include, intense public awareness campaigns on the growing threat to life due to AMR, clubbing the benefits of availing good sanitation facilities, hygienic lifestyle and everyday practices.
Moreover, misuse of antibiotics in poultry, animal farming and agriculture should be curbed. Alongside, mass vaccination program for prevention of bacterial and viral infections, should be made available all over the country. Monitoring of the incidence of death due to AMR, on an ongoing basis, is another practice should also feature in the must-do list, providing access to this database to public. Responding meaningfully to International coalition for country-specific action, is also very important. To attain this goal a healthy socioeconomic environment needs to be encouraged, with corruption free efficient governance.
That India is in the eye of the AMR storm, can’t be wished away any longer. Thus, the fight against AMR will need to be a well-orchestrated one, engaging all stakeholders as partners. The private sector should also actively participate in the AMR awareness programs under public–private partnership (PPP) or through Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives.
The whole process should be backed by a creative strategy, having buying-in from all concerned, but spearheaded by the government. That’s the minimum that, I reckon, should happen when the country is in the eye of the impending AMR storm.
By: Tapan J. Ray
Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.