April 30th, 2014
03:34 PM ET

World Health Organization: Antibiotic resistance is now a reality

The drumbeats about the dangers of antibiotic resistance just got louder. The World Health Organization says antimicrobial resistance - which includes drug-resistant bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites - is seen in every region of the world.

"The picture is consistent," says Dr. Keiji Fukuda, assistant director-general for health security at the WHO. "The capacity to treat serious infections is becoming less all over the world. ... This is something which is occurring in all countries of the world."

Antimicrobial drugs are one of the foundations of modern health care - something we all hope to rely on when we get sick with ailments including pneumonia, urinary tract or blood infections, diarrhea or sexually transmitted diseases, Fukuda says. These infections occur worldwide on a daily basis.

But because of overuse or misuse or improper use of existing treatments, the ability to fight these infections is getting harder and harder, he says.

In its first global report on antimicrobial resistance, released Wednesday, the WHO says " a post-antibiotic era - in which common infections and minor injuries can kill - is a very real possibility for the 21st century."

Fukuda uses gonorrhea as an example. He says the disease affects about 1 million people each day, and there are at least 10 countries where it is untreatable by any antibiotic.

It isn't the first time these alarms bells have rung. Last year the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention started ranking superbug alert levels. Instead of red, orange or yellow - the levels once used to describe terrorism threats - the CDC is using "urgent," "serious" and "concerning."

Conservative estimates in the United States alone suggest 2 million people get antibiotic-resistant infections each year, and at least 23,000 die because current drugs no longer stop their infections. The WHO cannot provide global statistics, Fukuda says, because many countries have no estimates at all or conduct surveillance of resistance to superbugs. Only 22 countries provided data on surveillance for this report.

Bacteria and other microbes have been humans' worthy opponents for a long time. But drug developments, such as the discovery of penicillin and the emergence of other antibiotics, transformed medical care and dramatically reduced illness and death from infectious diseases.

But in mere decades, with the overuse of antibiotics to raise bigger pigs and cattle and people failing to take prescribed drugs for the entire time, microbes have turned into superbugs for which medical weapons are quickly dwindling - and thus turning into deadly, unstoppable killers around the globe.

Some people may wonder why they should worry. Fukuda says that anyone who gets a serious infection, develops cancer and needs chemotherapy or requires any kind of surgery could be in a bad situation with no drugs left to treat them. The same is true for premature babies or malnourished children.

"Bottom line," says Fukuda, "we should expect to see that there are going to be some people who have untreatable infections."

The WHO says there's a need for a global action plan, including:

- better use of vaccines;
- basic hand hygiene to reduce infections, such as washing hands;
- reduction of non-health uses of antimicrobial drugs;
- support of research that will lead to new and better diagnostic tests;
- and better surveillance, to get a better overall global antimicrobial resistance.

The report included data from 114 countries.

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