Common bacteria that cause life-threatening infections have become resistant to our strongest antibiotics in every region of the world.
That’s just one finding from a newly released report by the World Health Organisation that takes the first comprehensive look at the problem of antibiotic resistance around the globe.
“This serious threat is no longer a prediction for the future, it is happening right now … and has the potential to affect anyone, of any age, in any country,” according to the WHO’s press release (emphasis ours).
Soon, it is very likely that we will return to a time when a common infection or a minor scrape could be a fatal injury.
That’s the reality of what the WHO calls the post-antibiotic era, the point at which our antibiotics stop working against bacteria and we are powerless against ordinary infections.
The scope of the problem
The WHO focused on seven common bacteria in order to assess the severity of the problem, though they note that many infectious microbes are becoming resistant. These bacteria include E. Coli and MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), and infections caused by these seven include antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea, pneumonia, diarrhoea, meningitis, and more.
The WHO team analysed data from 114 countries. In many, more than half of patients being treated for E. coli, gonorrhea, and pneumonia can no longer be treated with standard antibiotics, and in some cases, any antibiotics.
These diseases, which bring modern medicine to its knees, come about when bacteria adapt to lose the weak points targeted by antibiotics. When those resistant strains spread, they lead to infections that no longer respond to even our last-resort treatments.
The WHO also looked at specific diseases, and found that treatment-resistant strains of HIV, malaria, tuberculosis, and influenza have been emerging. This suggests that the trend of resistant illness goes beyond bacteria to include parasites and viruses too.
Between 10-17% of patients with HIV in the United States, Australia, Europe, and Japan who haven’t previously received treatment are infected with a strain of the virus resistant to at least one drug, according to the report.
Though this data was collected from all available sources, the WHO says that there are still major gaps in our analysis, and there are no standardized procedures around the world to study the problem of how bad antimicrobial resistance already is.
The situation could be even worse than we know.
Human and financial consequences
Both the health and economic consequences of antibiotic resistance are tremendous. Without effective antibiotics, people get sicker, stay sick longer, require more expensive treatment, and are more likely to die.
People with MRSA infections as opposed to non-resistant Staph infections are 64% more likely to die. In WHO’s Americas region, up to 90% of Staph infections are now MRSA. Recent reports show that MRSA isn’t just spreading around hospitals, but also around homes in the United States, too.
In the United States alone, the healthcare costs of antibiotic resistance have been estimated at between $US21 and $US34 billion, according to the report.
Urgent action is needed
Overuse and misuse of antibiotics is a huge cause of the problem, according to the report, but it isn’t the only one. We haven’t discovered a major new type of antibiotic for 30 years.
In order to move forward, the WHO says that the world needs to urgently act together to try to prevent infections in the first place, only use antibiotics when necessary, and to hurry up and start working together to better understand the problem and collaborate on finding solutions.
“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,” said Dr. Keiji Fukuda, WHO’s assistant director-general for health security, in a statement. “The implications will be devastating.”
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