WHO sounds alarm over global antibiotic overuse
The World Health Organization warns medical authorities around the world to be careful with antibiotics and stay on the hunt for superbugs.
Published Thursday, April 7, 2011 9:02PM EDT
The rampant misuse of antibiotics is undermining the global fight against a number of infectious diseases, including tuberculosis and malaria, the World Health Organization warns.
The UN health group says many infections are no longer as easily treated as they once were, leading to prolonged treatment and hiking the risk of death.
If the problem isn't curtailed soon, it is not inconceivable that the global health world could see a return to the days before antibiotics were developed.
The warning comes as the WHO marks World Health Day, an annual celebration to mark the founding of WHO in 1948. This year, the theme of the day is "Combat Drug Resistance."
The group used the day to issue a call to world governments, health professionals, and patients to slow the spread of drug resistance.
Drug resistance is not new, but has been growing exponentially in recent years as pathogens have been allowed to evolve to resist more and more kinds of antibiotics and other antimicrobial medicines.
At the same time, new classes of the drugs are not being developed fast enough to replace the ones that have lost effectiveness. Today, less than five per cent of products in the pharmaceutical research and development pipeline are antibiotics.
"The message on this World Health Day is loud and clear. The world is on the brink of losing these miracle cures," said WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan.
"In the absence of urgent corrective and protective actions, the world is heading towards a post-antibiotic era, in which many common infections will no longer have a cure and, once again, kill unabated," she said.
While hospital "superbugs" grab the biggest headlines, other once-common illnesses are seeing resurgences as well, including tuberculosis.
An estimated 440,000 new cases of multidrug-resistant TB were reported last year in nearly 60 countries across the globe, Shin Young-soo, WHO regional director for Western Pacific area, said in a statement. Those infections led to at least 150,000 deaths.
In China alone, about 6.8 per cent of tuberculosis cases are multi-drug resistant -- far higher than the 2 per cent rate in most developed countries, said Dr. Michael O'Leary, the WHO's representative in China.
Fuelling the resistance problem in China is the widespread overuse of antibiotics. The drugs are thought to be overprescribed because it is a way for hospitals to boost revenue.
Antibiotics are also misused in the food industry, showing up in everything from farmed fish to honey.
China's Vice Health Minister Ma Xiaowei said at a ceremony to mark World Health Day that he hoped hospitals would push for antibiotics to be used in "scientific and rational" ways.
The WHO noted that TB is not the only infection dealing with growing drug resistance. The malaria parasite has also "learned" to resist even the latest generation of medicines. Resistant strains of the bugs that cause gonorrhea and shigella are also limiting treatment options.
The report comes on the same day that a study was released showing a gene called NDM-1 that can turn many types of bacteria into deadly superbugs has been found in about a quarter of water samples taken from drinking supplies and puddles on the streets of New Delhi.
Experts say it's the latest proof that the gene is widely circulating in the environment -- and could potentially spread to the rest of the world.
The WHO said that while governments need to take the lead to developing policies to combat drug resistance, health professionals and patients can also make important contributions.
For example, doctors and pharmacists should prescribe and dispense only the drugs that are required to treat a patient, rather than automatically giving either the newest or best-known medicines.
Patients should also resist the urge to demand that doctors give them antibiotics when they may not be appropriate. And health professionals in health care facilities need to more vigilant in helping to reduce the spread of infection.
"No action today means no cure tomorrow," Chan said. "At a time of multiple calamities in the world, we cannot allow the loss of essential medicines – essential cures for many millions of people – to become the next global crisis."