Antibiotic resistance is not a threat of the future but a clear and present danger, according to a report from the World Health Organization (WHO).
As bacteria become resistant to once-effective medicines, common illnesses such as diarrhea, pneumonia and urinary tract infections become more difficult to treat—and potentially more deadly.
“Without urgent, coordinated action, 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 Keiji Fukuda, MD, MPH, assistant director-general for Health Security at WHO. “Effective antibiotics have been one of the pillars allowing us to live longer, live healthier and benefit from modern medicine.
“Unless we take significant actions to improve efforts to prevent infections and also change how we produce, prescribe and use antibiotics, the world will lose more and more of these global health goods and the implications will be devastating.”
According to WHO, resistance to common bacteria in many parts of the world has reached frightening levels. In some regions, few or no treatment options are available anymore for common infections.
The problem is rampant worldwide. In just the Americas, the two most important types of antibiotics used to treat E. coli—third-generation cephalosporins and fluoroquinolones—are not nearly as effective against that infection as they once were.
Third-generation cephalosporins also are losing effectiveness for treatment of a bacteria called Klebsiella pneumoniae that is well known in health care settings. The bacteria can cause pneumonia, infections of the bloodstream, wound or surgical site infections, and meningitis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Klebsiella bacteria are normally found in human intestines and in human stool. Those most at risk for infections are ill patients on breathing machines (ventilators) or using intravenous catheters, and people who are on long-term antibiotic treatment, according to CDC.
Also in the Americas, as many as 90 percent of Staphylococcus aureus (staph) infections are resistant to treatment with methicillin. Staph have also become resistant to the antibiotic vancomycin.
Like Klebsiella, staph infections can be fatal when they occur in health care settings, according to CDC.
Coordinated efforts could help curb the problem, according to WHO. The general public can help by:
- Preventing the spread of infections by practicing good hygiene
- Getting recommended vaccinations
- Using antibiotics only when, and exactly as, prescribed by a doctor
- Never sharing antibiotics with other people or saving antibiotics for later use
Why are antibiotics losing their effectiveness? Find answers here.