The World Health Organization (WHO) warned this week that a dozen antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” pose a massive threat to human health, and urged the scientific community to act quickly to research and develop new antibiotics against several of the most concerning pathogens.
The rise in drug-resistant bacteria is attributed largely to overuse of antibiotics among humans and indiscriminate use of antibiotics among livestock. Many public health experts consider these strains to be just as dangerous as reemerging viruses like Ebola and Zika. And we are quickly running out of effective treatment options. Already, the CDC estimates that at least 23,000 Americans are killed annually due to drug-resistant superbugs.
The WHO report identified as “critical priority” three pathogens resistant to multiple antibiotics: carbapenem-resistant Acinetobacter baumannii and Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and all members of the Enterobacteriaceae family (which includes familiar names like E. coli) resistant to both carbapenems and third-generation cephalosporins. Carbapenems and cephalosporins are families of antibiotics.
A third group, labeled “medium priority,” included drug-resistant versions of Streptococcus pneumoniae, Haemophilus influenza, and shigella. All three cause common infectionsin children and adults. These bacteria represent a threat due to increasing resistance but still have some effective antibiotic options available, according to the WHO.
Antibiotics, the drugs that are used to prevent and treat bacterial infections, are among the greatest public health advancements. Prior to routine use of antibiotics, an infected bug bite or simple skin scratch could be deadly. Before antibiotics, bacterial pneumonia had a 30 percent fatality rate, and 90 percent of children infected with bacterial meningitis died. The WHO report highlights the urgent need to develop new antibiotics, lest infections that were once easily treated become deadly because they’ve grown resistant to all existing options (see A Post-Antibiotic Future?). But such research faces an uphill battle: New antibiotics are difficult to discover and there is little market incentive for pharmaceutical companies to do so, since the drugs are typically used short-term (as opposed to therapies for chronic diseases, which bring in much more revenue).
Also see When to Be Anti-Antibiotics.