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WHO warns antibiotics now in crisis

13th March 2012

A new book by the World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned of a global crisis in antibiotics, once the mainstay of 20th century medicine.

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Rapidly evolving resistance among the microbes responsible for some of the world's deadliest and most infectious diseases means every antibiotic ever developed is now at risk of becoming useless.

While the last century yielded major breakthroughs in the treatment of tuberculosis, malaria, HIV/AIDS, influenza and many bacterial infections, most of the medicines currently used to treat these diseases will probably become ineffective as the organisms that cause them acquire resistance, WHO says.

The book, entitled The evolving threat of antimicrobial resistance - Options for action, warns that antimicrobial resistance in itself has become a major worldwide health threat.

The result will be that even common infections will become much harder and much more expensive to treat, the WHO says. Some could even end up being untreatable.

WHO director-general Margaret Chan said in a statement at the book's launch that very few replacement antibiotics were in development, and that "the pipeline is virtually dry".

But Chan said much could still be done to slow this process, including cutting down on unnecessary prescriptions for antibiotics and ensuring that treatment regimes were followed correctly.

She also called for restrictions on the use of antibiotics in food production and for a crackdown on the use of substandard and counterfeit medicines.

According to the WHO, drug resistance leads to illnesses worsening and becoming more prolonged, as well as bringing with it a higher risk of complications and higher death rates.

Developing countries in particular shoulder a heavy disease burden in relation to infections which are increasingly resistant to antibiotics.

Some countries have already taken successful measures to counteract the development of resistance in key, front-line medications, according to the book.

Awareness schemes in Thailand and Vietnam have led to large reductions in antibiotics use by educating doctors, patients and pharmacies about the dangers of over-prescribing.

Antimicrobials have been reduced in Norwegian farmed fish by 98% between 1987 and 2004 as the result of an effective fish vaccination programme.

And in Zambia, medical undergraduates are now taught about antimicrobial resistance and rational use of medicines as a top priority on their training courses.

According to the WHO, graduates need to enter clinical practice with the right skills and attitudes to help contain the problem of antimicrobial resistance.



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