It's Official: Superbugs Are Everywhere, and They're Getting Worse

The World Health Organization says we're quickly moving toward a 'post-antibiotic era.'

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Apr 30 2014, 3:43pm
A drug-resistant tuberculosis detection center in Lima, Peru. Image: World Health Organization

Antibiotic resistance is making superbugs more common all over the world and in pathogens where prevalence wasn’t seen much before, according to a massive new report from the World Health Organization.

Though WHO has warned about superbugs before, the organization’s latest report is by far its most thorough, as it tries to get a sense of just how bad the problem of antibiotic resistance has gotten worldwide. It’s not terribly pretty: Resistant forms of hospital-spread bacteria like e. coli, k. pneumoniae, and MRSA have been seen throughout the world, as have resistant forms of strep. Resistant forms of gonorrhea, shigella, and nontyphoidal salmonella are being seen in new regions of the world as well, though the organization warns that the surveillance mechanisms for detecting such diseases are lagging behind in certain parts. 

“Without urgent, 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 can once again kill,” Keiji Fukuda, WHO’s assistant director-general for health security, said in a statement. Without action, “the world will lose more and more of these global public health goods and the implications will be devastating.”

The report notes that “very high rates of resistance have been observed in bacteria that cause common health-care associated and community-acquired infections in all regions.” 

Pathogen surveillance data is lagging in Africa and key countries such as India. Image: WHO

Nothing in the report is terribly surprising, given that we’ve known antibiotic resistance is a growing problem for years now. The main impetus for the report, then, is to find out just how bad the problem is. And it takes a comprehensive look (the report is more than 250 pages and features a disease-by-disease look at resistance all over the world) to be able to figure that out. The most important measure, perhaps, is the spread of superbugs and the growing incidence of treatment failures around the world. To have any sense of that, WHO says that it needs better data from countries outside of Europe and the Americas, where advanced disease surveillance systems exist. And it’s going to need to look at trends, which means we probably won’t know much more about this until next year.

“The report demonstrates that resistance is a threat that has no borders,” Gail Hansen, a researcher who studies antibiotic resistance at Pew Charitable Trusts, told me. “There’s no lack of scientific evidence that this is happening, but there’s a lack of specific data about where this is happening.”

Whether countries take any sort of action to limit antibiotic overuse in both humans and animals and continue to take steps to develop new ones is another matter. Any sort of legislation to help fight the problem has died quickly in Congress, and the Food and Drug Administration has been slow to restrict the use of antibiotics in animals for non-therapeutic reasons. 

“There are only so many ways WHO can sound the alarm. They’re trying to get it out there that this really is a worldwide problem, that they’re not kidding,” Hansen said. “They’re doing what they can.”

Here's a closer look at what diseases are developing antibiotic resistance: