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MRSA attacks a human cell. The bacteria shown is the strain MRSA 252, a leading cause of hospital-associated infections. (Image: Rocky Mountain Laboratories/NIAID/NIH)

Nations Failing to Combat 'Global Threat' of Antibiotic-Resistant Superbugs: WHO

Increasing antibiotic misuse and resistance is 'single greatest challenge in infectious diseases today,' says World Health Organization

Deirdre Fulton

The world's ability to practice medicine and treat both common and serious illnesses is at risk, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned in a new report analyzing global misuse of antibiotics and the increasing spread of antimicrobial resistance.

"This is the single greatest challenge in infectious diseases today," stated Dr. Keiji Fukuda, WHO's assistant director-general for health security. "All types of microbes—including many viruses and parasites—are becoming resistant to medicines. Of particularly urgent concern is the development of bacteria that are progressively less treatable by available antibiotics. This is happening in all parts of the world, so all countries must do their part to tackle this global threat."

Last year, in its first comprehensive look at the crisis, the WHO cautioned against the "alarming rise" of antibiotic-resistant superbugs, saying that without coordinated action by many stakeholders, the world is headed for a "post-antibiotic era," in which common infections and minor injuries which have been treatable for decades become deadly once again.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has issued similar warnings, with CDC head Tom Frieden saying in 2014 that antimicrobial resistance, which costs lives as well as tens of billions in healthcares costs, "is a big problem and it's getting worse."

The WHO's new report, "Worldwide country situation analysis: Response to antimicrobial resistance," surveyed 133 countries in 2013 and 2014, asking governments about their efforts to combat drug resistance, which builds as medicines are used improperly—whether in the wrong dosages or for the wrong length of time—or to treat the wrong illness. Only 34 countries responded that they had a comprehensive plan to monitor and control how antibiotics are used.

The survey results suggested that sales of antibiotics and other antimicrobial drugs without prescription remain widespread, "with many countries lacking standard treatment guidelines, increasing the potential for overuse of antimicrobial medicines by the public and medical professionals," according to a WHO press release.

In the WHO African Region, for example, the 8 countries in the region that responded (out of 47) all stated that resistance to treatments for malaria and tuberculosis are their greatest challenges. In the WHO Region of the Americas, where 26 out of 35 member states responded to the survey, only 3 countries report having a national, multi-sector plan to address antimicrobial resistance. Even in Europe, where public information campaigns are common, half the population believes viruses can be fought with antibiotics, the WHO study found.

All this led Fukada to conclude: "While there is a lot to be encouraged by, much more work needs to be done to combat one of the most serious global health threats of our time."

In the U.S., where antibiotic-resistant superbugs are killing thousands of Americans a year, the industrial meat sector is considered a primary breeding ground for such resistant strains.

Earlier this week—in a move Sasha Stashwick of the Natural Resources Defense Council called a "tipping point for getting the chicken industry off antibiotics"—Tyson Foods, the nation's largest processor of meat and poultry, announced it would eliminate the use of human antibiotics for raising chickens in its U.S. operations by September 2017.

"Tyson's commitment follows a hopeful series of similar pledges by other major food companies, including Perdue, McDonald's, Chick-fil-A, and Pilgrim's," Stashwick wrote. "A longer list, including Panera Bread, Chipotle, Whole Foods, Applegate and others have already been providing customers with meat and poultry from animals raised without antibiotics for years."

However, she noted, "none come close to Tyson in scale." Now, Stashwick declared, "It's time for the chicken industry to make real antibiotic stewardship an industry-wide standard—and for producers of turkey, beef and pork to catch up."


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