By Roberta Attanasio
For the last 70 years, we have been winning most fights against harmful bacteria, using antibiotics as weapons. Now, we’re losing — our weapons don’t work any more, and the bacteria are fighting back. The alarming rise of antibiotic resistance is mostly due to overuse of antibiotics, both in medicine and in agriculture.
In her book “The drugs don’t work“, Sally Davis, the UK chief medical officer, says that if we do not take responsibility now, in a few decades we may start dying from the most commonplace of operations and ailments that can today be treated easily. About a year ago (March 2013), she recommended to add antibiotic resistance to the UK government’s list of threats to national security. In addition, Davies recognized the global nature of the problem and called for coordinated action at the global level.
Later last year (September 2013), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report (Antibiotic resistance threats in the United States, 2013) on the impact of resistant bacteria in the U.S. According to the analysis, each year at least 2 million people become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics and at least 23,000 people die as a direct result of these infections. Many more people die from other conditions that were complicated by an antibiotic-resistant infection. The estimates are based on conservative assumptions and are likely minimum estimates — they are the best approximations that can be derived from currently available data.
However, antibiotic resistance is a worldwide problem. Resistant bacteria can cross international boundaries and spread between continents with ease and at remarkable speed. World health leaders have described antibiotic resistant microorganisms as “nightmare bacteria” that “pose a catastrophic threat” to people in every country in the world. Thus, it is not surprising that a few days ago (April 30, 2014) the World Health Organization (WHO) released the first global report on antibiotic resistance. The report provides the first comprehensive picture of antibiotic resistance to date (with data from 114 countries) and reveals a global, serious threat to public health — it warns that infections caused by resistant bacteria double the risk of death and increase the rate at which infection spread, lengthening hospital stays and adding significant economic burdens to already stretched healthcare systems around the world. Infections by resistant bacteria are becoming “harder or impossible to control.”
Keiji Fukuda, WHO’s Assistant Director-General for Health Security said in a press release “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. Effective antibiotics have been one of the pillars allowing us to live longer, live healthier, and benefit from modern medicine. 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.”
Some of the important actions recommended by the WHO include preventing infections from happening in the first place — through better hygiene, access to clean water, infection control in health-care facilities, and vaccination — to reduce the need for antibiotics.