Photo courtesy of NIAID via Flickr.
Improved hygiene and medicine over the last century has led to an eradication of many major diseases. But instead of disappearing, bacteria are developing antimicrobial resistance that makes treatment ineffective, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports.
Diseases across the world such as flu, gonorrhea, and HIV are evolving to resist antibiotics and other antimicrobial treatments, the report found.
Patients infected with resistant bugs have a death rate twice as high as patients with regular diseases. They also require longer and more expensive hospitalization, and risk spreading the resistant disease to others.
In the U.S. alone, at least 2 million people become infected with antibiotic-resistant diseases each year, resulting in at least 23,000 deaths, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“Without urgent, coordinated action, the world is heading towards a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries, which have been treatable for decades, can once again kill,” the report states.
Which diseases have evolved?
The WHO study, which collected data from 114 countries, found that antimicrobial resistance was widespread across the world.
These are some of the diseases found to have developed resistance to treatment, although it’s not a comprehensive list:
- Staphylococcus aureus. Also known staph infection, it’s a relatively common disease that can be lethal if untreated. WHO found it to have “widespread” antimicrobial resistance.
- E. coli urinary tract infection (UTI). UTIs caused by E. coli were very often resistance to the most common medicine used to treat it.
- Bird flu. Almost all human cases of influenza A, also known as avian flu, are now resistant to common flu drugs.
- Gonorrhea. This sexually transmitted disease, which affects 700,000 people yearly in the U.S., was found to be impossible to treat in several countries.
- Tuberculosis (TB). More than 450,000 cases of drug-resistant TB were reported in 2012, and extensively drug-resistant strains were found in 92 countries.
- Malaria. A discovery of drug-resistant malaria in Southeast Asia could compromise the global effort to combat the disease.
- HIV. Antiretroviral treatment for HIV had been administered to more than 8 million people by 2011, and surveys suggest that areas were more people were treated were susceptible to increased disease resistance.
Why are diseases evolving?
The rapid evolution of antimicrobial resistance, which renders microorganisms like bacteria, fungi, viruses and parasites resistant to treatments such as antibiotics, is a natural phenomenon.
But due to the widespread use, and misuse, of antimicrobial drugs, this development is rapidly accelerating.
Its use in raising animals, for instance, has served as a breeding ground for resistant bacteria simply due to natural selection.
Millions of healthy animals are treated with antibiotics each year, just to promote weight gain. This has made it significantly more likely for bacteria present in these animals to adapt to the antibiotics.
The ubiquity of antibiotic medicine, often acquired without certification from health care professionals, has also helped bacteria become resistant to treatment.
And in many cases, inadequate infection prevention and disease control has lead to a proliferation of antimicrobial-resistant diseases, which could in many cases have been contained.
What’s being done to prevent these diseases?
Since it’s a widespread, systemic issue, there is no single way to prevent antimicrobial resistance, the WHO states. Rather, action has to be coordinated throughout society.
Citizens can avoid taking antibiotics without prescriptions, make sure to complete the full treatment, and never share their antibiotic medicine.
Hospitals and health workers can improve infection prevention and disease control, prescribe antibiotics only when they’re needed, and make sure to prescribe the right kind of antibiotic.
Eliminating unnecessary use of antibiotics in animal husbandry could also help reduce the spread of antimicrobial resistance. Canada and many European countries have already banned this practice.
The U.S. government is also investing $30 million in an initiative to drastically reduce the spread of antibiotic resistance. Many treatments haven’t been updated in years, and research could help new drugs to become more effective, as we’ve written about before.
But until then, even simple hygiene can help: by preventing the spread of infections, it eliminates the need for antibiotics in the first place.