A first-ever World Health Organization assessment of the growing problem calls for rapid changes to avoid the misery and deaths of a potential "post-antibiotic era".
Dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria and other pathogens have now emerged in every part of the world and threaten to roll back a century of medical advances. That’s the message from the World Health Organization in its first global report on this growing problem, which draws on drug-resistance data in 114 countries.
“A post antibiotic-era—in which common infections and minor injuries can kill—far from being an apocalyptic fantasy, is instead a very real possibility for the 21st century,” wrote Keiji Fukuda, WHO’s assistant director general for Health Security, in an introduction to the report. The crisis is the fruit of several decades of overreliance on the drugs and careless prescribing practices as well as routine use of the medicines in the rearing of livestock, the report noted.
Antibiotic resistance is putting patients in peril in both developing and developed countries, as bacteria responsible for an array of dangerous infections evolve resistance to the drugs that once vanquished them.
Gonorrhea, once well treated by antibiotics, is once again a major public health threat due to the emergence of new, resistant strains. Drugs that were once a last resort treatment for the sexually transmitted disease—which can lead to infertility, blindness and increased odds of HIV transmission if left untreated—are now the first-line treatment and are sometimes ineffective among patients in countries such as the U.K., Canada, Australia, France, Japan, Norway, South Africa, Slovenia and Sweden.
Drugs to treat Klebsiella pneumoniae—a common intestinal bacteria that can cause life-threatening infections in intensive care unit patients and newborns—no longer work in more than half of patients in some countries. And fluoroquinolones, drugs used to treat urinary tract infections, are also ineffective in more than half of sufferers in many parts of the world. Efforts to limit the spread of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis, malaria and HIV are also all under threat due to increasing bacterial resistance.
Although the development of resistance is to be expected over time, overuse of the drugs has accelerated the process by supplying additional selective pressure, noted the report, which was authored by an extensive team of researchers with WHO. And there are few drugs to replace the ones that are now ineffective: The last entirely new class of antibacterial drugs was discovered 27 years ago, according to the report.
WHO warns that the situation could have sweeping effects on global medicine, economics and societies unless global actions are taken swiftly. A dearth of effective antibiotics will mean that infected patients will need more extensive care, require longer hospital stays and die in greater numbers.
Written By: Dina Fine Maron
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