World Health Day: Are We Losing The Battle With Drug-Resistant Bacteria?

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.


Related reading:

Turkey Products Recalled – Possible Salmonella Contamination

Pig Farms Breed Drug Resistant Diseases



Photo courtesy of Sheep purple via Flickr


Duane B.
.5 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Charles B.
Charles B6 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Jane R.
Jane R6 years ago

Scarry situation for future generations.

Ruth R.
Ruth R6 years ago

Thank you for the post. Signed the care2 petition some months ago.

gerlinde p.
gerlinde p6 years ago

there are so many natural remedies available, antibiotics should only be used as a last resort.

Alixis Lind
Alixis Lind6 years ago

I love how different doctors have completely different responses to common illnesses. My doctor will not prescribe antibiotics for a sinus infection until all other routes have been exhausted since they are normally viral. My mother's on the other hand prescribes antibiotics right away when she gets a sinus infection... Which led to some hilarity when I got her sinus infection even though I was on high-dose antibiotics for Whopping Cough.
I prefer having doctors who shy away from instant antibiotic prescription. He will always try to prednisolone or some other anti-inflammatory when I get chest/head colds. Though as soon as he heard my horrific cough he gave me 700mg of strong antibiotics and got me tested for Whopping Cough... I'm now recovering well and am on the CDC's infectious disease report.
Antibiotics should be saved for those circumstances. Honestly just having a good doctor who knows a lot can be enough to keep you going without antibiotics. If they can diagnose you early you usually won't get an opportunistic bacterial infection, which means no antibiotics.

John Duqesa
Past Member 6 years ago

Jeanne M.

You are quite right, I guess. The ones that don't get killed must be more resourceful than the ones that do. However, I have also heard that, in fact, these sprays do actually kill 100% of bacteria. The reaon that they are advertised as killing 99.99% is in case some idiot, after doing an analysis, finds just one bug alive, then the 100% claim would be false and the company liable under advertising laws and possibly negligence if the person claims illness.

However, as noted earlier by a contributor, the real danger of these sprays is that they do not allow children to develop a normal immune response and thus allergies in the young population increase, as we have seen over the past 20 years - and some of these allergies can be fatal. As Michael R posted:--

"there is such a thing as the sterile hypothesis in immunology. However its infact more likely to create a heightend resposne to a pathogen, (hence increasing allergies in a population)."

Jeanne M.
Jeanne M6 years ago

All those sprays that kill 99.9% of bacteria?
Apparently the .1% that survives are the super-bugs of their generation.

John Duqesa
Past Member 6 years ago

Arvin E.

There are present-day uses for sulfa drugs, principally in the treatment of Ulcerative Colitis and sulphasalazine, in particular, has been called a "wonder drug" for its beneficial effects in the management of this distressing disease. There are other uses nowadays of sulfa drugs for urinary tract infections, as well as intestinal infections, so it's not really a "discarded" drug.

Unfortunately, most staph infectious agents are resistant to sulfa drugs, hence the rather restricted present-day usage. Furthermore, many people are allergic to them.

So I think that, unfortunately, sulfa drugs aren't the way to go, which is a shame, although "if only" a safer product of this type could be developed that provoked less allergic reactions.

That's not to say that we shouldn't look at previously used treatments that have fallen out of favour. Doctors treating varicose and gravitational ulcers nowadays often prescribe Eusol and Paraffin for wound cleaning when the wound is sloughing. Studies have shown its effectiveness re antiseptic, antimicrobial properties. Yet Eusol is a drug that is virtually never used elsewhere or for other applications. I do understand that Eusol is used for topical application, but there may be other old, discarded drugs that could be used for systemic and therapeutic purposes.

Arvin E.
Arvin E.6 years ago

We way underestimate the smartness of these bugs. If you don't believe it, just talk to someone familiar with HIV and it's propensity to mutate. I wonder about sulfa drugs which have not been used in a long time and I wonder if the bacteria has lost its resistance to that class of Rx.