Antibiotic resistance, which can lead to minor injuries and common post-operative infections becoming fatal, is no longer a prediction for the future but is happening “right now”, the World Health Organisation has said.
In a stark report, global health officials said that antibiotic resistance, the process whereby bacteria evolve to resist the drugs we use to combat them, “threatens the achievements of modern medicine” and will have “devastating” consequences unless “every country and individual” in the world takes action to prevent its further spread.
The report, the WHO’s first looking at the threat on a global scale, analysed 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”.
Already, resistance to last resort treatments for life-threatening hospital infections caused by the common bacteria Klebsiella pneumoniae has spread to all parts of the world, the report said. Resistance to the most widely used drugs for treating urinary tract infections caused by E.coli is also widespread, while last resort drugs to treat gonorrhoea has been confirmed in 10 developed countries, including the UK.
In Europe, 25,000 people a year already die from infections which are resistant to drugs of last resort.
Overuse of antibiotics, both in medicine and in agriculture, is driving the rise of antibiotic resistance by hastening the evolution of resistant strains of bacteria. The WHO said that in some countries there was still no strategy in place to slow the spread of resistance. Doctors should prescribe antibiotics “only when truly needed”, while individuals should only use antibiotics prescribed by a doctor and should never share them with others, the report said.
“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 Dr Keiji Fukuda, the WHO’s assistant director general for health security.
“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 report warns that an infection with resistant bacteria not only makes the likelihood of death from an infection up to twice as high, but would make infections “harder or impossible to control”, increasing the rate at which the infection spreads, lengthening hospital stays and adding significant economic burdens to already stretched healthcare systems around the world.
In the UK, health officials have already responded to a significant rise in hospital infections caused by a strain of drug resistant bacteria called known as carbaenemase-producing enterobacteriaceae (CPE), which caused 600 infections 2013, compared to just five in 2003. Public Health England is monitoring the situation on a national level. Dame Sally Davies, the chief medical officer, has previously compared the risk of rising antibiotic resistance in the UK to the threat posed by terrorism.
Responding to the WHO’s report, she said that the world had reached a “critical point”.
“The soaring number of antibiotic-resistant infections poses such a great threat to society that in 20 years' time we could be taken back to a 19th century environment where everyday infections kill us as a result of routine operations,” she said. “I have already issued a call to action in the UK, but we can't tackle the problem on our own and urgently need coordinated international action.”
The global health charity Médecins Sans Frontières said that their doctors were seeing “horrendous rates of antibiotic resistance” across all of its fields of operation.
Dr Jennifer Cohn, medical director of the charity’s drug access campaign said that governments should incentivise the pharmaceutical industry to develop “new, affordable antibiotics” alongside more “rational use” of antibiotics around the world.