December 16, 2017

World Health Organization: Antibiotic Resistance Could ‘End Modern Medicine’

Dr. Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organization (WHO) said at a conference in Copenhagen that antibiotic resistance could “end modern medicine as we know it.” Her keynote address was given on March 14, 2012.

Food Poisoning Bulletin has told you about how the common use of antibiotics in farm animals has created antibiotic-resistant bacteria, that the numbers of foodborne illnesses caused by antibiotic resistance bacteria are increasing, and that the U.S. government has waffled on the issue of restricting their use in animals used for food.

Dr. Chan mentioned Denmark’s response to this problem as a potential model for other countries. Denmark has a very low domestic antibiotic consumption, and has been proactive in the problem of antibiotic use in food-producing animals.

In the late 1990s, that country progressively ended the administration of antibiotics as growth-promoters. This was well before the EU ban on this practice in 2006.

A WHO review panel, set up at the request of the Danish government, concluded that:

“The ban reduced human health risks without significantly harming animal health or farmers’ incomes.” In fact, Danish government and industry data showed that livestock and poultry production actually increased following the ban, while antibiotic resistance on farms and in meat declined.”

Dr. Chan continued, “There is another lesson here. Never underestimate the importance of consumer groups and civil society in combating antimicrobial resistance. They are important movers, shakers, and front-line players, especially in this age of social media.

She also said:

“If current trends continue unabated, the future is easy to predict. Some experts say we are moving back to the pre-antibiotic era. No. This will be a post-antibiotic era. In terms of new replacement antibiotics, the pipeline is virtually dry, especially for gram-negative bacteria. The cupboard is nearly bare.

Prospects for turning this situation around look dim. The pharmaceutical industry lacks incentives to bring new antimicrobials to market for many reasons, some of which fall on the shoulders of the medical and public health professionals. Namely, our inability to combat the gross misuse of these medicines.

From an industry perspective, why invest considerable sums of money to develop a new antimicrobial when irrational use will accelerate its ineffectiveness before the R&D investment can be recouped?

A post-antibiotic era means, in effect, an end to modern medicine as we know it. Things as common as strep throat or a child’s scratched knee could once again kill.”

Dr. Chan ended her speech with these words. “WHO is aware of these challenges and is addressing them, also through strategies for combating antimicrobial resistance adopted by other WHO regions. … I thank Denmark for raising the profile of antimicrobial resistance during its EU presidency. I thank the EU for its collective progress, and striking progress within individual countries. … We have many challenges ahead, and a long way to go. But we have solid success to build on. And we are steadily on our way.”

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