The four major public health threats we need to act on now

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Viral pandemics aren’t the only worry: antibiotic resistance, a drop in vaccination and other issues could rapidly put the world’s health in peril


17 June 2020

Vaccine hesitancy

The spread of misinformation has caused falls in measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccination in countries including the US and UK, contributing to an uptick in measles cases worldwide. The collapse of HPV vaccination in Japan in 2013 due to fears about adverse events is expected to cause some 5000 extra cervical cancer deaths. Vaccine hesitancy featured on a World Health Organization list of 10 major health threats in 2019.

Yet even among people who desperately want vaccines, diminished access may be a knock-on effect of the current pandemic. In some places in Africa, people queue for 5 hours to get the yellow fever vaccine, says Sylvie Briand, director of the WHO’s Pandemic and Epidemic Diseases Department. “But in other countries, where people have not experienced those kinds of diseases, we need to better communicate the benefits of vaccines.”

Antibiotic resistance

A 2016 report commissioned by the UK government estimated that, globally, 700,000 people die annually due to antibiotic resistance, and that this could rise to 10 million by 2050. This includes people who catch superbugs while in hospital and lives lost to drug-resistant tuberculosis, respiratory tract infections, sexually transmitted diseases and urinary tract infections. The UN is seeking agreement for a global action plan and efforts are under way to find new antibiotics and diagnostic tools. “New antibiotics are only a short-term answer,” says Tim Jinks at the Wellcome Trust, a UK-based research charity. “Long-term, we also need systems changes, such as clean water being available to patients, and healthcare workers adopting appropriate hygiene practices everywhere.”

Antifungal resistance

Fungal infections are estimated to kill …

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