WASHINGTON — Doctors have long warned against prolonged use of antibiotics, saying that bacteria can build resistance to drugs, eventually rendering them ineffective. The World Health Organization reported Wednesday that antibiotic-resistant bacteria now exist in many parts of the world. Some diseases that once could easily be cured by antibiotics have now become deadly.
The Geneva-based WHO said its survey shows very high rates of drug-resistant E. coli bacteria, which can cause meningitis and infections of the skin, blood, kidneys and other organs. The agency's assistant director-general, Keiji Fukuda, said Wednesday that the survey also found worrying rates of resistance in other bacteria, such as those that cause pneumonia, diarrhea, urinary tract infections and gonorrhea.
"It's clear that rates are very high of resistance among bacteria, causing many of the most common serious infections, the ones that we see both occurring in the community, as well as in hospitals," said Fukuda.
Romanian doctor Adrian Cercel said he has virtually no treatment left for some of his patients.
"During the last 20 years, the bacteria have developed very sophisticated resistance mechanisms, and we are facing a situation in which we don't have antibiotics to treat the patient due to the existence of pan-resistant germs," said Cercel.
The WHO's survey shows that in some countries, many types of bacterial infections do not respond to antibiotic treatment in more than half of patients. Public health specialists blame overconsumption of antibiotics, which are often prescribed for non-bacterial ailments. Jean-Baptiste Ronat, with the group Doctors Without Borders, said that people also can consume the drug inadvertently by eating meat from animals that have been treated with antibiotics.
"So the two main dangers, actually, [are] the use and the overuse of antibiotics in food factories and animal production - especially the fact that we use antibiotics as growth factors since ages in the U.S. and all over the world. It has been restricted in Europe since 2001. And the second one is the overuse in human health. Taking into account that most of the time people take antibiotics because they have a common cold and because the patient want[s] antibiotics," said Ronat.
Ronat and others said the world is returning to conditions similar to the era before antibiotics.
"That means in the 19th [century], so before the first world war, where we had no antibiotics and where we were just dying because of a urinary tract infection or because of a pulmonary infection. So this is what is going to happen in the future," predicted Ronat.
The WHO report describes the problem as a major threat to global public health. It recommends that people use antibiotics only when prescribed by a doctor. They should complete the full prescription, never share antibiotics with others, and never use leftover prescriptions.