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Rise of superbugs a global threat, WHO says

Increasing misuse of drugs has enabled the growth of drug-resistant superbugs which could give way to global epidemics.

Last updated: 30 Apr 2014 18:13
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The rise of superbugs and the misuse of antibiotics has enabled treatable diseases to once again become killers according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

A statement on Wednesday by the WHO comes as a United Nations study on antimicrobial resistance showed the problem was becoming a global emergency.

In the first global report that gathered data from 114 countries the WHO said superbugs were able to evade event the hardest-hitting antibiotics.

"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, the WHO's assistant director-general for health security.

The report claimed that even so-called “last resort” drugs were losing their potency in some countries.

Resistance is futile

Among the report's key findings was the global spread of resistance to carbapenem antibiotics - the last resort treatment for life-threatening infections caused by the common intestinal bacteria Klebsiella pneumoniae.

Known as K. pneumoniae, it is a major cause of hospital-acquired infections such as pneumonia, blood infections often infecting newborns and intensive-care patients.

Even developed countries are seeing a spike in drug resistance with increasing rates of resistant gonorrhea, which infect more than one million people a day, confirmed in Austria, Australia, Britain and other countries.

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.

Keiji Fukuda, the WHO's assistant director-general for health security

But K. Pneumoniae and gonorrhea are not the only growing superbugs plaguing an increasingly less resistant global population. Resistance to one of the most widely used antibacterial medicines in treatment of urinary tract infections caused by E. Coli is also widespread.

And the problem is of particular concern in Africa, the Americas, South and Southeast Asia, and the Middle East.

Crisis on the ground

Medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said the scale of the drug-resistant crisis was frighteningly clear on the ground.

"We see horrendous rates of antibiotic resistance wherever we look in our field operations, including children admitted to nutritional centres in Niger, and people in our surgical and trauma units in Syria," Jennifer Cohn, an MSF medical director, said.

There was hardly any resistance when the drugs were introduced in the 1980s, but resistance affects half of patients in many parts of the world, the WHO said.

Resistance also raises health costs because of longer hospital stays and more intensive care.

Efforts to tackle the problem have lagged behind its growth, the WHO said, flagging weak or totally absent monitoring in many countries. 

"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 public health goods and the implications will be devastating," Fukuda said.

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