In its first-ever global report on antibiotic resistance, the World Health Organization doesn’t have much good news to impart. “The problem is so serious that it threatens the achievements of modern medicine,” the United Nations researchers explain. “A post-antibiotic era — in which common infections and minor injuries can kill — is a very real possibility for the 21st century.”
That may sound overly alarmist, but in reality, WHO’s findings reflect what medical experts have been saying for quite some time. Health officials are hoping the report will help serve as somewhat of a wake up call for the government leaders who haven’t been paying attention.
Drug resistance, which is typically driven by the misuse of antibiotics and bacteria’s ability to mutate into new forms, has been on the rise for years. Global health officials have repeatedly warned that we’re facing an impending “antibiotic apocalypse.” The treatments for common illnesses — everything from malaria to whooping cough to gonorrhea — have been increasingly losing their effectiveness. The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Dr. Tom Frieden, recently pointed out that if we don’t act on this issue soon, “our medicine cabinet will be empty and we won’t have the antibiotics we need to save lives.”
Nonetheless, research in this area has largely stalled, and only a handful of new antibiotics have been created over the past decade. That’s partly because it isn’t as profitable for pharmaceutical companies to invest in creating new drugs. Last year, the U.S. government formed a partnership with a pharma giant in the hopes of spurring innovation. Some infectious disease experts are urging Congress to pass tax credits to encourage the development of new antibiotics.
Meanwhile, the issue has gotten worse. The WHO’s report found that antibiotic resistance is now appearing in all parts of the globe. In some countries, the hardest hitting round of antibiotics used to treat common ailments, like pneumonia and blood infections, don’t work in over half of infected people. It’s not hard to see why that’s a serious problem: patients plagued with drug-resistant bacteria tend to “have an increased risk of worse clinical outcomes and death,” and also require hospitals to spend more on their care.
Unlike some public health risks — like the diseases that can spread among people who don’t get their vaccinations, or the flu strains that tend to impact people with compromised immune systems — the WHO is warning that antibiotic resistance has the potential to impact anyone, in any country, of any age.
“We’re on the precipice of returning to the dark days before antibiotics enabled safer surgery, chemotherapy and the care of premature infants,” an official with the Infectious Disease Society of America said in an interview last year. “We’re all at risk.”