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WHO Report: Antibiotic-Resistant ‘Superbugs’ Pose Worldwide Threat

Group compiles data from 114 countries

A new report from the World Health Organization (WHO) — its first to look at antimicrobial resistance, including antibiotic resistance, globally — shows that this serious threat is no longer a prediction for the future, but is occurring today in every region of the world. Antibiotic resistance is now a major threat to public health, the agency says.

“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.

The report focuses on antibiotic resistance in seven different bacteria responsible for common, serious diseases, such as sepsis, diarrhea, pneumonia, urinary tract infections (UTIs), and gonorrhea. The results are cause for high concern, WHO says.

According to the report, resistance to the “treatment of last resort” for life-threatening infections caused by the common intestinal bacterium Klebsiella pneumoniae — carbapenem antibiotics — has spread to all regions of the world. K. pneumoniae is a major cause of hospital-acquired infections, such as pneumonia, bloodstream infections, and infections in newborns and intensive-care patients. In some countries, because of resistance, carbapenem antibiotics are ineffective in more than half of patients treated for K. pneumoniae infections.

The report also notes that resistance to one of the most widely used antibacterial agents for the treatment of UTIs caused by Escherichia coli — fluoroquinolones — is widespread. In the 1980s, when these drugs were first introduced, resistance was virtually zero. Today, the report says, there are countries in many parts of the world where this treatment is now ineffective in more than half of patients, similar to the resistance rate for K. pneumoniae infections.

The failure of the treatment of last resort for gonorrhea — third-generation cephalosporins — has been confirmed in Austria, Australia, Canada, France, Japan, Norway, Slovenia, South Africa, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. According to WHO, more than 1 million people are infected with gonorrhea worldwide each day.

Antibiotic resistance causes people to be sick longer and increases the risk of death, the report points out. For example, people with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infections are estimated to be 64% more likely to die compared with people with a non-resistant form of the infection. Resistance also increases the cost of health care, with lengthier stays in hospitals and the need for more intensive care.

WHO recommends that health care providers and pharmacists help tackle antibiotic resistance by:

  • Enhancing infection prevention and control
  • Prescribing and dispensing antibiotics only when they are truly needed
  • Prescribing and dispensing the appropriate antibiotic to treat the illness

The report — which also includes information on resistance to medicines for treating other infections, such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection, malaria, tuberculosis, and influenza — provides the most comprehensive picture of drug resistance to date, incorporating data from 114 countries.

Source: WHO; April 30, 2014.

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