Bacteria Are Adapting to Drugs Faster than We Can Develop New Ones

Tuberculosis bacteria Photograph by Dr. Volker Brinkmann/Science Photo Library/Corbis

Some harmful bacteria are adapting to drugs faster than cures can be developed, according to a report published today by the World Health Organization. Infections resistant to antibiotics are “happening right now in every region of the world and [have] the potential to affect anyone, of any age, in any country,” the organization wrote.

The WHO report is the latest urgent alarm that our medical arsenal may be running out of ammunition against potentially deadly bugs. The last new class of antibiotic drugs was developed in the 1980s. The drought since then, the organization says, is “a discovery void.”

Courtesy World Health Organization

As microbes reproduce, they evolve to become more resilient to the therapies that doctors have used to treat bacteria since the first patients got penicillin in the 1940s. That process is accelerated when drugs are overused, or used improperly.

In the United States, 80 percent of antibiotics (measured by weight) are used for farm animals, as journalist Maryn McKenna documented last year, mostly to promote growth rather than to treat disease. The Food and Drug Administration in December attempted to reduce antibiotic use in farming, but the rules have been criticized as ineffective. Europe has largely banned the use of low-dose antibiotics to promote animal growth.

Overuse or misuse of antibiotics in medical settings also contributes to resistance. A recent Centers for Disease Control review of prescribing in hospitals concluded that “there is ample opportunity to improve use and patient safety by reducing incorrect antibiotic prescribing.”

Courtesy World Health Organization

Tuberculosis is one example of a disease caused by bacteria that is rapidly growing resistant to drugs. WHO estimates that in 2012, there were 450,000 new cases globally of “multidrug-resistant TB”—roughly the population of Atlanta. Largely because they could not be effectively treated by the two most powerful TB drugs, the infections caused an estimated 170,000 deaths, or about 13 percent of all TB deaths worldwide.

For other infections including e. coli and k. pneumoniae—common gut bacteria that can cause serious illness if they spread to other areas of the body—resistance to common antibiotic cures reached more than 50 percent in some countries.

The new report is light on specific recommendations. The WHO found big gaps on the global system to track drug-resistant bugs, and called for “an improved and coordinated global effort, including wider sharing of surveillance data, for public health actions, particularly for [antibiotic resistance].” And the organization has previously made policy recommendations to combat resistance, including suggestions to reduce the antibiotics used in agriculture

But the WHO’s power to solve the problems it identifies is is limited. It’s up to the world’s governments to find solutions to infections that have no regard for political borders, and increasingly can’t be cured with the medicines we have.