Growing threat of antibiotic resistance recognized by WHO

An extremely rare microscopic image of drug-resistant bacteria.

The WHO has added its voice to a booming choir warning of the global threat posed by antimicrobial resistance.

Antimicrobial resistance extends to bacteria, fungi, parasites and viruses. The UN health agency says that the future is now for global resistance, in a report released yesterday.

People who catch drug-resistant infections are at greater risk of dying and place a greater financial burden on health systems and themselves.

The discovery and development of antibiotics have been a cornerstone of public health for the past century. Increasing resistance and a lack of new drugs makes for a concerning future.

“Without urgent, coordinated action by many stakeholders, the world is headed for a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries which have been treatable for decades can once again kill,” saids Dr Keiji Fukuda, WHO’s Assistant Director-General for Health Security.

The greatest concern is for antibiotic resistance in diseases like diarrhea, pneumonia and urinary tract infections. Resistant infections affect some 2 million Americans each year. Already, 23,000 people die in the US each year due to antibiotic-resistant infections.

Inaction means that things will only get worse for everyone around the world.

resistance development

There is also a significant cost burden posed by resistance. The WHO report estimates that resistance costs $21 billion to $34 billion to the US health system alone. It accounts for a decrease in real GDP by as much as 1.6%.

Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that there is evidence of resistance developing during the process of creating new antibiotics.

Solving the problem will require the development of new drugs as well as better efforts to monitor and prevent the development of resistance. Using antibiotics to treat the wrong infection and incomplete treatments contribute to the development of resistance.

Then there is its use in livestock. The WHO and other health activists have warned for years that continued use of antibiotics to treat cattle who live in unsanitary conditions make fora breeding ground of resistance.

Knowing what is happening around the world remains the first stumbling block. While there is rather robust data from the US, there are countries in Africa and Asia where national data is not available. They happen to also be some of the countries where health systems perform poorly, such as Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Afghanistan.

Similar recommendations were outlined in a working group report by the Center for Global Development, in 2010. Four steps were described, based on consultations with global health and policy experts.

  1. Improve surveillance.
  2. Improve drug supply chains.
  3. Stronger drug regulations in developing countries.
  4. Support research and development for new drugs and technologies.

“Antibiotics are a global resource and the world has a responsibility to use this resource for the greatest good of humanity while protecting their effectiveness,” said Dr. Ramanan Laxminarayan, Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics, and Policy, Resources for the Future, following the report’s release.

Its authors urged global leaders to take immediate action. For the WHO, it said that the UN body can lead the way for countries to do their part in monitoring and reporting on drug resistance. Four years later, the WHO is saying much of the same thing is needed.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.