Officials from the World Health Organization warned this week that the workhorse medications we rely on to keep viruses, bacteria and other pathogens in check are in real danger of becoming obsolete.
In every region of the globe, health officials have witnessed "very high rates of resistance" to antimicrobial drugs designed to fight bugs like Escherichia coli, Staphylococcus aureus and Klebsiella pneumoniae, according to a new report. These bugs cause pneumonia and infections in the bloodstream, open wounds and the urinary tract.
All six of the WHO's regions include at least one country in which at least half of the strains of Streptococcus pneumoniae are resistant to penicillin and at least half of K. pneumoniae strains are resistant to cephalosporin drugs, the report says.
In addition, five of the six WHO regions include at least one country where at least half of the strains of S. aureus are resistant to methicillin. Also, five of the six regions have at least one country where half of the E. coli strains are now drug-resistant, according to the report.
In many parts of the world antimicrobial resistance "has reached alarming levels," the report says. But it outlines an array of threats that underscore the vulnerability of all nations, both rich and poor. To wit:
—A growing number of people with HIV are finding that some antiretroviral drugs don't work for them. In the United States, Europe, Australia and Japan an estimated 10% to 17% of patients who are just starting drug treatment are infected with a virus that's resistant to at least one drug.
—Health experts know that strains of tuberculosis resistant to multiple drugs are on the rise, with roughly 20% of recurrent cases falling into this category. But a lack of reliable data on the spread of these strains hampers efforts to get a handle on the problem.
—A handful of countries have identified strains of malaria that are resistant to the drug artemisinin, which is usually a powerful weapon against the parasite that causes the potentially fatal disease. If those drug-resistant strains spread, recent gains in malaria control could be wiped out.
Unless the WHO and its 194 member states get serious about tracking these drug-resistant pathogens, health officials will have no chance to contain their spread, the report says. To that end, the organization will take a lead role in developing surveillance systems to track these bugs in both people and livestock.
If the international community fails to cooperate, "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," Dr. Keiji Fukuda, the WHO's assistant director-general for health security, said in a statement.
"Effective antibiotics have been one of the pillars allowing us to live longer, live healthier and benefit from modern medicine," he said. "Unless we take significant actions … the implications will be devastating."