Doctors have been warning about the threat posed by antibiotic resistance for years, and it seems that many of these fears are slowly unfolding. Now, the World Health Organization (WHO) has published its first ever list of antibiotic-resistant “priority pathogens”, naming 12 of the bacterial families that pose the highest risk.
The list highlights gram-negative bacteria, a group that contains the more familiar E.coli, in particular, as some of these have become resistant to multiple antibiotics, including some of those most commonly used. The WHO are concerned that if little is done to alleviate this issue, standard procedures, such as C-sections, and people with compromised immune systems, like those undergoing chemotherapy and the elderly, could be at an increased risk of catching untreatable infections.
The point of the list, the WHO insists, is not to scare people or cause panic, but to highlight the bacteria most in need of increased research. The bacteria that make the list are not prevalent enough to garner the attention of the big pharmaceutical companies to have much of an interest in, but they stress that they should become priorities for governments and health agencies to make sure the drugs exist to treat them before they become a more serious problem.
“Antibiotic resistance is growing, and we are fast running out of treatment options,” explains the WHO’s Assistant Director-General for Health Systems and Innovation, Dr Marie-Paule Kieny in a statement. “If we leave it to market forces alone, the new antibiotics we most urgently need are not going to be developed in time. This list is a new tool to ensure R&D responds to urgent public health needs.”
The bacteria that tops the list are three that you’ve probably never heard of. Gram-negative bacteria and resistant to multiple drugs, Acinetobacter baumannii, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and Enterobacteriaceae are considered the most serious threat by the WHO, and so are classified as “critical”. While they might not be widespread just yet, when they do cause infection they are frequently fatal, particularly in vulnerable patients.
Next on the list are six that are listed as “high” priority, which includes more familiar names such as Salmonella spp., Staphylococcus aureus, and Neisseria gonorrhoeae. It was only last year that researchers warned of the spread of the “super” drug resistant gonorrhoea, as seven cases were detected in Hawaii alone. The final three bacteria are classed as “medium” priority, including ampicillin-resistant Haemophilus influenza and non-susceptible S. pneumoniae.
It is thought that around 700,000 people globally die from untreatable bacterial infections. Already a worryingly high number of people, estimates suggest that if little is done to try and curb the antibiotic resistances, this figure could reach 10 million by 2050, putting into stark terms the need for swift action.