In a commentary published in the journal Nature, experts called for a stronger global response in tackling antibiotic resistant bacteria. These pathogens, such as methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) which cannot be treated with the most powerful drugs on the market, are now in every corner of the world and pose a significant health threat to humans. Experts want to create an independent body to oversee a coordinated international effort to develop new drugs and set targets to reduce antibiotic use.
In a previous post on PublicHealthWatch, I reported on another study released just last month in which the World Health Organization (WHO) identified antibiotic resistance as a threat to modern medicine.
The report, WHO’s first investigation into the threat on a global scale, analyzed data from 114 countries and found that antibiotic resistance was happening in “every region of the world and has the potential to affect anyone, of any age, in any country.” While it is not a complete picture of antibiotics resistance, it is “the most comprehensive picture that we’ve had to date,” Dr. Keiji Fukuda, assistant director-general for health security at the WHO, said in a statement.
The results are cause for high concern, documenting resistance to antibiotics, especially “last resort” antibiotics, in all regions of the world. Antibiotic resistance, which occurs when bacteria change and antibiotics no longer work against infections, “is now a major threat to public health.”
According to the WHO, the growth of drug-resistant strains of bacteria means infections are either harder or impossible to control, which could lead to quicker spread of diseases and higher death rates, especially among hospital patients.
“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,” said Fukuda. “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.”
The WHO report highlights how individual decisions about prescribing antibiotics can have more widespread, even global consequences. “If I prescribe a heart medicine for a patient, that heart medicine is going to affect that patient,” says Dr. Martin Blaser, director of the human microbiome program at the New York University Langone Medical Center and author of Missing Microbes. “But if I prescribe an antibiotic, that antibiotic will affect the entire community to some degree. And the effect is cumulative.”
Tackling the problem begins with preventing infections in the first place, the WHO says, thereby reducing the need for antibiotics altogether. Prevention methods include better hygiene, access to clean water, tighter infection-control in health care facilities and vaccination. But ultimately, a coordinated approach involving individuals, health workers and pharmacists, policymakers, and industry will be key to stopping the potentially disastrous effects of antibiotic resistant bacteria.
If we don’t act on the problem, experts say we risk going back to a time when common infections were deadly and a simple cut could lead to a life-threatening infection.
Medical experts aren’t mincing their words when it comes to this threat:
“We’re on the precipice of returning to the dark days before antibiotics enabled safer surgery, chemotherapy and the care of premature infants,” an official with the Infectious Disease Society of America said in an interview last year. “We’re all at risk.”
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