Everyday Infections May Kill as Antibiotics Lose Potency

A post-antibiotic era in which common infections and minor injuries lead to death is a real possibility this century, the World Health Organization said in the first global survey of resistance to antimicrobial drugs.

“Very high rates of resistance” to treatments have been observed in all regions, in bacteria that cause common infections such as those related to wounds, pneumonia, and urinary-tract and bloodstream conditions, the Geneva-based agency said in a report today. Significant gaps in disease surveillance and lack of coordination of data sharing also exist, the WHO said.

Resistance to antibiotics is particularly acute with tuberculosis, affecting about 630,000 people globally, and drug effectiveness is declining among patients with malaria, HIV and influenza, the WHO said. In the case of gonorrhea, 10 countries have reported that the disease is untreatable by any antibiotic.

“The report shows that resistance is a global trend; this is not a phenomenon occurring in just poor countries or developing countries,” Keiji Fukuda, the WHO’s assistant director-general for health security, told reporters today in Geneva. “We are taking this situation extremely seriously.”

While many companies stopped developing anti-infection drugs years ago to focus on more profitable chronic illnesses, such as diabetes and heart disease, others are seeing an opportunity and a growing unmet need.

Drug Development

Cubist Pharmaceuticals Inc. aims to commercialize at least four new antibiotics by 2020 and plans to invest about $400 million on research in the area this year. The Lexington, Massachusetts-based company’s drug Dificid was approved in the U.S. in 2011 as the first new product for the hospital-based infection Clostridium difficile in 30 years.

Merck & Co., Sanofi, Actelion Ltd. and Shire Plc are also vying to develop new products to control or prevent C. difficile.

In the meantime, patients have few options to turn to.

“We see horrendous rates of antibiotic resistance wherever we look in our field operations,” Jennifer Cohn, medical director at the Doctors Without Borders non-profit international aid group, said in an e-mailed response to the WHO’s study. “What we urgently need is a solid global plan of action which provides for the rational use of antibiotics so that quality-assured antibiotics reach those who need them, but are not overused or priced beyond reach.”

Antimicrobial resistance is a global health security threat that requires cooperation among governments, especially on surveillance that generates reliable data to inform public health strategies, the WHO said.

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