World Health Organization: No, Seriously, Stop Abusing Antibiotics

In a consciously alarming report today, the agency said, "Without urgent action, we are heading for a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries can once again kill."
Dr. Herman Bundesen tacks a gonorrhea quarantine sign on a door in Chicago, 1937. (AP)

"The problem is so serious that it threatens the achievements of modern medicine. A post-antibiotic era—in which common infections and minor injuries can kill—far from being an apocalyptic fantasy, is instead a very real possibility for the twenty-first century."

That's according to a 257-page warning today from the World Health Organization (WHO) about increasingly unbeatable, pervasive infectious agents. The analysis of 114 countries is the most comprehensive global look at antimicrobial-drug resistance to date, and it found "very high" rates of resistant infections across all regions, including "alarming" rates in many parts of the world.

If there's ever an upside to panic, it's inspiration. Responses to the WHO's declaration of this "global health security threat"—which range from one U.K. expert agreeing we've reached a "critical point," to Doctors Without Borders corroborating "horrendous rates of antibiotic resistance"—likewise suggest that some steady-handed panic is prudent here.

As bacteria, fungi, viruses, and parasites grow to defy the drugs that once killed them, so grows the threat to global public health. When more and more standard treatments no longer work, largely due to overuse and misuse, infections become difficult (or impossible) to control. Pathogens will spread more widely, and the illnesses and hospital stays they induce will be longer and more likely to kill people. Specifically, WHO warns, an infection with antibiotic-resistant bacteria compared to one with antibiotic-sensitive bacteria doubles a person's risk of dying.

The organization's immediate recommendations for everyone are reiterations, not new but oft ignored: Use antibiotics only when prescribed, take them for the entire time they're prescribed (even if you feel better), and never share them or use leftovers.

On a global scale, the WHO says surveillance of drug-resistant outbreaks "is neither coordinated nor harmonized," reporting "major gaps" and an "urgent need to strengthen collaboration ... across government sectors and society as a whole."

The Atlantic

That's especially relevant to agriculture, in that most antibiotics are used not on people, but on food animals so that we can grow them fast and in tight proximity. The world population is exploding, and it demands cheap meat. By 2050 there will be ten times more humans on Earth than there were in 1800. Factoring in the costs of widespread antibiotic use and resistance to the health of said humans—healthcare spending, lost productivity, unsettling collateral damage to our own natural microbiomes that we're only beginning to understand, and other intangibles like feeling seriously threatened by something as once-subdued as gonorrhea (which the WHO found now exists in 36 countries in a form that cannot be killed by any antibiotic)—it's not at all cheap.

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James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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