LONDON – Superbugs resistant to drugs pose a serious worldwide threat and demand a response on the same scale as efforts to combat climate change, specialists on infectious diseases said on Thursday.
Warning that a world without effective antibiotics would be “deadly,” with routine surgery, organ transplants and treatments for cancer and diabetes becoming impossible, the experts said the international response has been far too weak.
“We have needed to take action against the development of antimicrobial resistance for more than 20 years. Despite repeated warnings, the international response has been feeble,” said Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust medical charity.
The World Health Organization has missed opportunities to take the lead and very little progress has been made, he said, resulting in the emergence of strains of infections — including tuberculosis, malaria, pneumonia and gonorrhea — that resist all known drugs.
“We need a new independent body that will not only monitor the spread of antimicrobial resistance, but also drive and direct efforts to contain it,” he told reporters at a briefing in London.
Such a body should be modeled on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and work with governments and agencies that would implement its recommendations, Farrar said in a joint commentary in the journal Nature with Mark Woolhouse of Edinburgh University’s Centre for Immunity, Infection and Evolution.
Drug resistance is driven by the misuse and overuse of antibiotics, which leads bacteria to develop new ways of overcoming them. It has been a feature of medicine since Alexander Fleming’s discovery of the first antibiotic, penicillin, in 1928.
Only a handful of new antibiotics have been developed and brought to market in the past few decades. It is a race against time to find more as infectious bacteria increasingly evolve into superbugs resistant to even the most powerful last-resort medicines.
One of the best-known superbugs, MRSA, alone is estimated to kill around 19,000 people every year in the United States — far more than HIV and AIDS — and a similar number in Europe.
The WHO issued a report last month saying the spread of deadly superbugs is happening right now across the world.
Woolhouse said the time has come “to stop restating the problems . . . and start taking action.”
“We need independent, international leadership on this issue before the massive health gains that have been made since Alexander Fleming’s discovery . . . are lost forever,” he said.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a U.N. body set up in 1988 to provide a clear scientific view of the current state of climate change and its potential environmental and social impacts.
Woolhouse and Farrar said their vision of a similar body on antimicrobial resistance — which they dubbed the Intergovernmental Panel on Antimicrobial Resistance (IPAMR) — would involve a broad range of experts.
“Creating an effective IPAMR will be a huge undertaking, but the successful global campaign to eradicate smallpox, led by the WHO, demonstrates that a coordinated international response to a public health threat can work,” they wrote in Nature.
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