The planet may be headed toward a “post-antibiotic era” in which common infections once easily controlled by antimicrobial medicines are lethal, the World Health Organization reported Wednesday in its first look at antibiotic resistance that has developed in all parts of the world.
“The problem is so serious that it threatens the achievements of modern medicine,” the organization said, adding that “a very real possibility for the 21st century” is a time when standard treatments no longer work, the chances of death from infection rise and the risk of disease spreading to others will increase.
“Effective antibiotics have been one of the pillars allowing us to live longer, live healthier and benefit from modern medicine,” Keiji Fukuda, WHO’s assistant director-general for health security, said in a news release. “Unless we take significant actions to improve efforts to prevent infections and also change how we produce, prescribe and use antibiotics, the world will lose more and more of these global public health goods and the implications will be devastating.”
Such alarm in the health-care community and elsewhere about resistance to antibiotics is not new. In September, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned of “potentially catastrophic consequences” of drug-resistant microorganisms, saying they now kill an estimated 23,000 people in this country every year, and other public health groups have been clamoring about them for years.
But WHO reported that “very high rates of resistance” have been observed around the world to common bacteria that cause urinary tract, wound and bloodstream infections, as well as pneumonia. Multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis is a growing and under-reported concern, and rising resistance to anti-HIV drugs has been detected. At the same time, surveillance of the growing threat by officials worldwide is not coordinated.
In a region-by-region breakdown, WHO reported that in some settings in the Americas, up to 90 percent of Staphylococcus aureus infections are resistant to methicillin, a situation that has come to be abbreviated as MRSA. The bacteria that causes pneumonia is now less susceptible to penicillin throughout the world and exceeds 50 percent of cases in some places. In 36 countries, the last-resort treatment for gonorrhea is proving less effective.