The world is on the cusp of a “post-antibiotic” era with a dozen bacteria that are growing resistant to all medications we have on hand to fight them, the World Health Organization is warning.
In its first-ever ranking, the global health authority listed 12 superbugs that “pose the greatest threat to human health.” The catalogue is meant to guide research and development in the right direction, targeting these stealthy bugs.
Most of the dozen on the notorious list are gram-negative bacteria. That means they’re resistant to multiple antibiotics. They have “built-in capabilities” to resist treatment and even pass along genetic material to other bacteria, teaching them to evade antibiotics, too, the WHO warns.
“Antibiotic resistance is growing, and we are fast running out of treatment options. If we leave it to market forces alone, the new antibiotics we most urgently need are not going to be developed in time,” Dr. Marie-Paule Kieny, the WHO’s assistant director-general for health systems and innovation, said in a statement.
The WHO divided its ranking into three categories based on urgency for the need for drugs.
The WHO’s ranking of 12 high-priority pathogens that need R&D for new antibiotics
Priority 1: Critical
- Acinetobacter baumannii, carbapenem-resistant
- Pseudomonas aeruginosa, carbapenem-resistant
- Enterobacteriaceae, carbapenem-resistant, ESBL-producing
Priority 2: High
- Enterococcus faecium, vancomycin-resistant
- Staphylococcus aureus, methicillin-resistant, vancomycin-intermediate and resistant
- Helicobacter pylori, clarithromycin-resistant
- Salmonellae, fluoroquinolone-resistant
- Neisseria gonorrhoeae, cephalosporin-resistant, fluoroquinolone-resistant
Priority 3: Medium
- Streptococcus pneumoniae, penicillin-non-susceptible
- Haemophilus influenza, ampicillin-resistant
- Shigella spp., fluoroquinolone-resistant
The highest priority include bacteria that pose a threat to hospitals, nursing homes and patients with compromised immune systems or who rely on devices like ventilators and blood catheters. These are the germs that lead to severe and often deadly illnesses like pneumonia or blood infections.
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They’ve grown resistant to the latest generation of drugs – what’s dubbed as the best available antibiotics formulated to fight multi-drug resistant bacteria.
In his final days as Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Gregory Taylor told Global News in 2016 that superbugs were of utmost concern to him.
We’re nearing a reality in which operations can’t happen or routine infections could kill people, he warned.
He called anti-microbial resistance a “wicked problem” the country is facing.
“They’re problems that are difficult and hard to tackle,” he said.
Almost 90 years ago, Scottish researcher Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin and ushered in a wave of new medications, all derived from bacteria in the soil beneath our feet.
Suddenly, pneumonia, tuberculosis, blood infections — ailments that once killed entire communities at a time — became manageable. Antibiotics were dubbed “wonder drugs”: they revolutionized medical care and extended life expectancy.
But we’re still relying on old innovations: half of the antibiotics prescribed to sick patients today were discovered in the 1950s, Canadian research suggests.
Wright says there have been virtually no new antibiotics discovered since the 1980s.
“We’re at a very precarious point simply because we don’t have any new drugs coming on board,” Wright told Global News.
Read the WHO’s full report.