When penicillin was introduced in 1930, it was considered a “miracle drug.” Infections that routinely killed people were suddenly wiped out with this antibiotic.
Since then there have been many new antibiotics hitting the market, each one more powerful than the next. They began to be prescribed for all kinds of ailments, whether they were life-threatening or not.
In recent years scientists warned that overuse of antibiotics would eventually lead to a super strain of bacteria that could resist the most powerful antibiotics. The World Health Organization (WHO) now says that day has arrived.
A new WHO report cites evidence of antibiotic resistance in every region of the world. Scientists say it is now a major health threat.
“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, WHO’s Assistant Director-General for Health Security.
A path to the past
The evolution of effective antibiotics has allowed people to live longer, live healthier, and benefit from modern medicine. Now, scientists say we are on a path to the past, when there were no antibiotics and anything from a scratch to a case of the flu could be fatal.
Of most concern at present are seven different bacteria responsible for common, serious diseases such as bloodstream infections (sepsis), diarrhea, pneumonia, urinary tract infections and gonorrhea. These bacteria appear to have made the most progress in developing resistance to antibiotics.
The report says that in some countries, because of resistance, the strongest antibiotics are ineffective in more than half of people treated for a type of pneumonia.
“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,” Fakuda said.
In particular, WHO scientists have found resistance to one of the most widely used antibacterial medicines for the treatment of urinary tract infections caused by E. coli–fluoroquinolones is very widespread.
As recently as the 1980s, when these drugs were first introduced, resistance was virtually zero. Today, there are countries in many parts of the world where this treatment is now ineffective in more than half of patients.
Defenseless against gonorrhea
Failure of once-reliable antibiotics to treat gonorrhea has been confirmed in Austria, Australia, Canada, France, Japan, Norway, Slovenia, South Africa, Sweden and the United Kingdom.
Scientists say that's worrisome because more than 1 million people are infected with gonorrhea around the world every day. Despite the dire circumstances, the report says it's not too late to turn things around.
From a health policy standpoint, the report urges governments to take action to prevent infections from happening in the first place -- through better hygiene, access to clean water, infection control in health-care facilities, and vaccination -- to reduce the need for antibiotics.
There are also steps individuals can take. They include:
- Only used antibiotics prescribed by a doctor
- Complete the full prescription, even if you feel better
- Never share antibiotics with others