01/05/2014 07:38 BST | Updated 01/05/2014 07:59 BST

Drug-Resistant 'Superbugs' Are On The Rise, Making Diseases Untreatable

Resistant superbugs are spreading world-wide and threaten that common infections will once again become killers despite antibiotics.

A new report from the World Health Organisation (WHO) says that antibiotic resistance is no longer a looming danger but a reality with the potential to affect anyone of any age in any country.

Urgent action is now needed to stem the threat to global public health before it is too late, according to the authors.

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The report examines data from 114 countries and focuses on seven different bacteria responsible for common but serious diseases such as bloodstream infections (sepsis), diarrhoea, pneumonia, urinary tract infections and gonorrhoea.

It documents resistance to antibiotics, including "last resort" drugs, the final line of defence against the bugs, in all regions of the world and both rich and poor nations.

Dr Keiji Fekuda, the WHO's assistant director-general for health security, said: "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.

"Effective antibiotics have been one of the pillars allowing us to live longer, live healthier, and benefit from modern medicine.

"Unless we take significant actions to improve efforts to prevent infections and also change how we produce, prescribe and use antibiotics, the world will lose more and more of these global public health goods and the implications will be devastating."

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Last year, England's chief medical officer Professor Dame Sally Davies said resistance to antibiotics was one of the greatest threats to modern health.

She stressed that many of the drugs were being used unnecessarily for mild infections which should not be treated with antibiotics, helping to fuel resistance.

The WHO report found that resistance to carbapenem antibiotics, a last resort treatment for life-threatening infections caused by the common intestinal bug Klebsiella pneumoniae, was now a problem everywhere in the world.

K. pneumoniae is a major cause of severe hospital-acquired infections such as pneumonia and sepsis, and a particular threat to newborns and intensive care patients.

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In some countries, carbapenem antibiotics no longer worked for more than half of people treated for K. pneumoniae infections.

People infected by resistant superbugs are also likely to stay longer in hospital and may need intensive care, pushing up costs.

Key strategies to tackle antibiotic resistance, such as basic tracking and monitoring systems, are not being implemented properly or at all in many countries, said the report.

Kick-starting a global effort led by the WHO to address the problem, it called for more to be done to stop infections occurring in the first place, such as better hygiene, access to clean water, improved infection-control in health-care facilities, and vaccination.

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It also urged a renewed focus on developing new diagnostics, antibiotics and other tools that might help healthcare professionals stay ahead of emerging resistance.

Members of the public, health workers and pharmacists, and policymakers could all play a part in fighting the superbugs, said the WHO.

Patients could help by only using antibiotics when they were prescribed by a doctor, making sure they completed the full course of treatment even if feeling better, and never sharing antibiotics or using left over prescriptions.

Health professionals were reminded only to prescribe and dispense antibiotics when they are truly needed and to ensure the right drugs were used for particular infections.

A regional break-down in the report revealed that in some settings in Europe MRSA accounts for up to 60% of S. aureus infections, meaning that treatment with standard antibiotics no longer worked.

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Throughout the WHO European region, there were high levels of K. pneuomoniae resistance to third generation cephalosporins.

In the Americas there were places where as many as 90% of S. aureus infections consisted of MRSA. E. coli resistance to third generation cephalosporins and fluroquinolones was also at a high level.

Professor Martin Adams, president of the Society for Applied Microbiology, said: "At the same time as improving surveillance, there must also be a global effort on prevention and control of infections involving drug resistant microbes in humans and animals.

"This will require development and implementation of new products, policies, and practices; and fundamental research to unpick the mechanisms by which resistance develops and can be passed between micro-organisms and from environment to environment.

"Even if there are new antimicrobial drugs brought to market, we will still face the spectre of resistance unless we can learn how to minimise or slow its development."

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He added that a better understanding was needed of the role livestock rearing played in the development and spread of antibiotic resistance.

"There has been much talk of the misuse of antibiotics in agriculture as a major source of antimicrobial resistance, but in reality, it is difficult to draw such a conclusion from current data," said Prof Adams.

Professor Nigel Brown, president of the Society for General Microbiology, said: "It is vital that microbiologists and other researchers work together to develop new approaches to tackle antimicrobial resistance.

"These approaches will include new antibiotics, but should also include studies to develop new rapid-diagnostic devices, fundamental research to understand how microbes become resistant to drugs, and how human behaviour influences the spread of resistance."

Commenting on the report, Dame Sally said: "The soaring number of antibiotic-resistant infections poses such a great threat to society that in 20 years' time we could be taken back to a 19th century environment where everyday infections kill us as a result of routine operations.

"We have reached a critical point and must act now on a global scale to slow down antimicrobial resistance. In Europe, 25,000 people a year already die from infections which are resistant to our drugs of last resort.

"I have already issued a call to action in the UK, but we can't tackle the problem on our own and urgently need coordinated international action. That's why I am delighted to see the World Health Organisation taking steps to lead the global effort."