Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has warned the "world isn't using its best medicines wisely" amid fears of antibiotic overuse creating the prime environment for superbugs.
Her comments came after Dame Juliet Gerrard, the Prime Minister's Chief Science Advisor, released her major report for 2021, which calls for action to combat infectious disease and antimicrobial resistance.
Guided by a panel of 10 researchers and practitioners with expertise in human, animal, and environmental health and contributions from a reference group of more than 200 experts, the report details the rise of harmful microbes that can resist drugs previously used against them.
While the Government's response to COVID-19 is praised, it warns against losing focus on other infectious diseases and antimicrobial resistance and being "prepared for the last health crisis rather than the next one."
Ardern, speaking in a video published to promote the research, said when Dame Juliet took up the role of her Chief Science Advisor in 2018, antimicrobial resistance and infectious disease was one of the first topics she raised.
"Since then, of course, the world has changed. We now know what it is to face a global pandemic. COVID has reminded us of the very real threat of infectious disease," Ardern said in a video published online.
"We're committed to learning the lessons of the pandemic to ensure we're as prepared as possible for future threats.
"Many of the lessons of our science-led responses to COVID and the likes of M bovis are broadly applicable regardless of the infectious disease in question and many simple policy changes can make a big difference to combat the dual threats of infectious diseases and the potential loss of our best line of defence against many of them - antimicrobial agents like antibiotics.
"The world isn't using its best medicines wisely."
The World Health Organisation (WHO) deems antibiotic resistance one of the top 10 global health threats and a 2019 report estimated that drug-resistant diseases could cause 10 million deaths each year by 2050.
At least 700,000 people die each year due to drug-resistant diseases, including 230,000 people who die from multidrug-resistant tuberculosis, the report said.
"More and more common diseases, including respiratory tract infections, sexually transmitted infections and urinary tract infections, are untreatable; lifesaving medical procedures are becoming much riskier, and our food systems are increasingly precarious."
The overuse of Azithromycin - a common antibiotic used to treat chest and sinus infections - during the coronavirus pandemic, created a rise in drug-resistant strains of 'super gonorrhoea', according to the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
Dame Juliet, who appeared in the video after Ardern, said: "Put simply, our antimicrobial engines - including some of our best medicines, our antibiotics - are likely to stop working if we keep using them as we do. We need to use these drugs wisely."
New Zealand has a "very high" rate of antibiotic use in the community, and we are among the 10 highest antibiotic-using nations in the world, according to Auckland University Associate Professor Mark Thomas from the School of Medical Sciences.
"This high rate of antibiotic use inevitably will result in faster spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria in NZ than in other countries that have lower rates of antibiotic use," he says.
"Increasing antibiotic resistance will make many infections harder to treat, and an increasing number of infections will be untreatable.
"We need to take steps to drastically reduce unnecessary antibiotic use by humans in New Zealand. For many years we have lacked national leadership to reduce unnecessary antibiotic use in New Zealand."
Prof Thomas wants a minister to take responsibility for the issue, groups established to do the work of encouraging wise antibiotic use by engaging with health care workers, and adequate funding to support it.
Associate Health Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall, who before becoming an MP in 2020 was an infectious diseases physician at Wellington Hospital, has first hand experience of dealing with antibiotic resistant patients.
"I saw how those infections were harder to treat, and they caused people to spend more time in hospital and suffer more side effects. Some of the people I cared for with just a simple urinary tract infection had to go to hospital to get treatment through a drip because the infection was resistant to antibiotics," she said in the video.
"I also found when treating patients with multi drug resistant tuberculosis, we needed to use alternative treatments that had more toxic side effects.
"Though we are fortunate to look at in New Zealand that antimicrobial resistance is not yet common or widespread. This is no time to be complacent."
In September last year Dr Verrall announced $36 million for research into COVID-19 and other infectious diseases, to improve our readiness for future pandemics.