WHO: Drug-Resistant Bugs Have Spread to “Alarming Levels”

May 1, 2014
Hunting the Nightmare Bacteria, FRONTLINE’s investigation into the rise of drug-resistant bacteria, rebroadcasts on many PBS stations on Tuesday, May 6. Check your local listings here.

The world is heading towards a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections can kill because there are no drugs left to fight them, according to a new World Health Organization report on drug-resistant bacteria.

“The problem is so serious that it threatens the achievements of modern medicine,” the report said. “Far from being an apocalyptic fantasy, [it] is instead a very real possibility for the 21st century.”

As FRONTLINE reported in Hunting the Nightmare Bacteria, one of the biggest barriers to confronting drug-resistance is that there’s so little data available. Hospitals, where such bugs can thrive, aren’t required to report outbreaks. And there’s no global consensus on how to track or report data.

The WHO report is the first effort to gain a full picture of the global reach of drug-resistance, gathering data from regional bodies and 114 member countries. It found that resistance thrives in all regions in the world, in some cases at “alarming levels.” It’s cost the U.S. alone an estimated $21-$34 billion dollars a year, with more than 8 million additional days in hospital for patients, the report said.

Today, efforts to track drug-resistance are “neither coordinated nor harmonized,” with many gaps in information, the report said. In poorer countries, including many African countries and much of Southeast Asia, there’s very little data at all. The WHO said it plans to draw from lessons learned from its approach to malaria, TB and HIV to develop ways to standardize data collection. It said it would also find better ways to track antibiotics in people and food-producing animals, which are among the major consumers of antibiotics.

Bacteria naturally evolve to develop drug-resistance, but that phenomenon has been accelerated by the use and misuse of antibiotics in humans and animals, the WHO said. And once bugs evolve to be resistant to those drugs, there are few new ones in the pipeline to fight them.

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