When antibiotics were first introduced in the 1940s, they were truly a miracle of modern medicine — “wonder drugs” that could cure a panoply of common infections. When antibiotics came on the scene, a child’s risk of dying from strep throat, or even a nasty scrape, virtually disappeared. Widespread and major diseases including tuberculosis, leprosy, syphilis and gonorrhea could be tamed.
Antibiotics abuse = drug resistance
But over the past six decades, the under use, over use, misuse and abuse of antibiotics has spawned a whole new series of medical problems: drug-resistant bacteria and superbugs.
Just the other day, in fact, there were reports that a drug-resistant strain of salmonella was detected in close to 55,000 pounds of turkey burger products. MRSA — the so-called hospital superbug — is estimated to kill about 19,000 people a year in the United States, and the same number in Europe. There’s even a “super superbug” — a mutation called NDM 1 — that first emerged in India but is now showing up all over the world, according to Reuters.
Drug resistance is such a rapid and growing concern that today, on World Health Day, the World Health Organization (WHO) is spotlighting the issue. And WHO’s Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan is not mincing words.
Back to the Future
“The message this World Health Day is loud and clear. The world is on the brink of losing these miracle cures,” Chan said in a statement. “In the absence of urgent corrective and protective actions, the world is heading towards a post-antibiotic era, in which many common infections will no longer have a cure and, once again, kill unabated.”
Issues include doctors who prescribe drugs too liberally (“to be on the safe side” and as Chan put it, “sometimes in response to patient demand, but often for doctors and pharmacists to make more money,”), patients who cut short their treatments because they simply can’t afford to pay, incorrect prescriptions for improper diagnoses and the prevalence of substandard products on the market in many countries. Because of these problems, more and more essential medications are becoming ineffective — and worse.
Take this example from WHO: last year at least 440,000 new cases of multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis were detected, and extensively-drug-resistant tuberculosis has been reported in 69 countries to date.
“Massive routine use” of antibiotics on animals
And think about this: approximately half of current antibiotic production is used in agriculture today, according to WHO, not just for sick animals but a “massive routine use” of drugs simply to promote growth and prevent disease.
Now to be fair, drug resistance is a naturally occurring biological phenomenon, and drug companies have traditionally kept apace by developing new drugs. But as Chan said in her statement, “faulty practices and flawed assumptions have clearly made the inevitable development of drug resistance happen much sooner, rather than later.”
And as Reuters reports, “the world’s top drug companies, faced with decreasing returns and ever more expensive and difficult science, have not only slowed their efforts to develop new antibiotics but have been quitting the field in droves.” Only two large drug companies maintain active antibiotic research and development programs according to the report. In 1990, there were nearly 20.
A call to get governments and drug regulatory systems on track
WHO is so concerned, it’s calling for governments, health professionals, industry, civil society and patients to act in concert to stem the tide of drug resistance. “WHO is issuing a policy package to get everyone, especially governments and their drug regulatory systems on the right track, with the right measures, quickly,” Chan said, describing the organization’s World Health Day report “Combat Drug Resistance: No Action Today Means No Cure Tomorrow.”
As Chan so aptly stated, “the responsibility for turning this situation around is entirely in our hands.” Let’s hope the world’s governments — and the pharmaceutical industry — takes WHO’s clarion call seriously.
“The trends are clear and ominous,” Chan concluded. “No action today, no cure tomorrow. At a time of multiple calamities in the word, we cannot allow the loss of essential medicines — essential cures for many millions of people — to become the next global crisis.”
Take Action: Sign the petition to limit the use of non-therapeutic antibiotics in food animals.
Photo courtesy of Sheep purple via Flickr