Bacteria resistant to antibiotics have now spread to every part of the world and might lead to a future in which minor infections could kill, according to a report published Wednesday by the World Health Organization.
In its first global survey of the problem, the WHO warned that antibiotic resistance was no longer an abstract threat to deal with in the future, but one that “is happening right now in every region of the world and has the potential to affect anyone, of any age, in any country.”
The report adds to a growing body of evidence and warnings from doctors, universities and health organizations about antibiotics. For years, many have said that without global action, antibiotic-resistant bacteria will continue to increase globally, eventually rendering many antibiotics — which were once considered modern medical miracles — largely useless.
Unless there is urgent 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," Dr. Keiji Fukuda, one of the agency's assistant director-generals, warned in a press release.
The report said it found very high rates of drug-resistant E. coli bacteria, which causes problems including meningitis and infections of the skin, blood and kidneys. The agency noted there are many countries where treatment for the bug is already ineffective in more than half of patients.
The WHO's report also found troubling rates of resistance in other bacteria, including bacteria implicated in relatively common illnesses like pneumonia and gonorrhea, as well as a global resistance to antibiotics for bacteria that cause common but deadly stomach and intestinal conditions.
Health experts have long warned about the dangers of drug resistance, particularly in diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria and flu. In a report by Britain's chief medical officer last year, Dr. Sally Davies described resistance as a "ticking time bomb" and said it was as big a threat to the public’s health as terrorism.
In 1928, Alexander Fleming's discovery of penicillin revolutionized medicine by giving doctors the first effective treatment for a wide variety of infections. Despite the introduction of numerous other antibiotics since then, there have been no new classes of the drugs discovered for more than 30 years.
"We see horrendous rates of antibiotic resistance wherever we look ... including children admitted to nutritional centers in Niger and people in our surgical and trauma units in Syria," said Dr. Jennifer Cohn, a medical director at Doctors Without Borders, in a statement. She said countries needed to improve their monitoring of antibiotic resistance. "Otherwise, our actions are just a shot in the dark."
The WHO said the first step to fighting resistance was to prevent the incidence of infection in the first place. The organization said countries should emphasize hygiene, access to clean water, and infection control in health care facilities in their public health strategies. It also said medical institutions should work on developing new antibiotics and other methods of treatment to stay ahead of the antibiotic resistance curve.
Al Jazeera and wire services