On World Health Day, UN urges action against worsening drug resistance

7 April 2011

A growing number of infections are becoming increasingly difficult to cure as a result of worsening drug resistance, the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) said today, warning that the problem is forcing health professionals to resort to prolonged and expensive treatments and greater risk of death.

The report, unveiled to mark World Health Day, whose theme this year is “Combat Drug Resistance: No Action Today, No Cure Tomorrow” calls for concerted action by governments, health professionals, industry and civil society, as wells as patients to slow down drug resistance.

“The message on this World Health Day is loud and clear. The world is on the brink of losing these miracle cures,” said WHO Director-General Margaret Chan. “In the absence of urgent corrective and protective actions, the world is heading towards a post-antibiotic era, in which many common infections will no longer have a cure and, once again, kill unabated.”

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in his message to mark the Day said drug resistance could reverse the gains already made in efforts to achieve the health-related aspects of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), saying some of the medicines that saved the lives of earlier generations have already been rendered useless.

“Perhaps most disturbing is that the pipeline for new antimicrobial medicines to replace those that have been lost has nearly dried up,” Mr. Ban said in his message.

“The emergence of antimicrobial resistance is a complex problem that involves a range of stakeholders. It needs to be urgently and aggressively addressed through a comprehensive response across sectors, within and across nations,” said the Secretary-General.

WHO also published a policy package that sets out the measures that governments and their national partners need to combat drug resistance.

The recommended policy steps include: developing and implementing comprehensive and fully funded national plans; strengthening surveillance and laboratory capacity; ensuring uninterrupted access to essential medicines of assured quality; regulating and promoting rational use of medicines; enhancing infection prevention and control; and fostering innovation and research and development for new treatments.

WHO pointed out that the discovery and use of antimicrobial drugs to treat diseases such as leprosy, tuberculosis, gonorrhoea and syphilis changed the course of medical and human history, but warned that those discoveries, and the generations of drugs that followed them are at risk as high levels of drug resistance threaten their effectiveness.

Drug resistance is a natural biological phenomenon, through which micro-organisms acquire resistance to the drugs meant to kill them. With each new generation, the micro-organism carrying the resistant gene becomes ever more dominant until the drug is completely ineffective.

Inappropriate use of infection-fighting drugs, including under-use, overuse or misuse, causes resistance to emerge faster, according to WHO.

Last year, at least 440,000 new cases of multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis were detected and extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis has been reported in 69 countries.

The malaria parasite is acquiring resistance to even the latest generation of medicines, and resistant strains causing gonorrhoea and shigella are limiting treatment options.

Serious infections acquired in hospitals can become fatal because they are so difficult to treat and drug-resistant strains of micro-organism are spread from one geographical location to another in today’s interconnected world, the UN health body noted, adding that resistance is also emerging to the antiretroviral medicines used to treat people living with HIV/AIDS.

“On this World Health Day, WHO is issuing a policy package to get everyone, especially governments and their drug regulatory systems, on the right track, with the right measures, quickly,” said Ms. Chan.

“The trends are clear and ominous. No action today means no cure tomorrow. At a time of multiple calamities in the world, we cannot allow the loss of essential medicines – essential cures for many millions of people – to become the next global crisis,” she added.

Meanwhile, the Collaborative Partnership on Forests (CPF), which brings together 14 international organizations, including some UN entities, stressed the importance of forests in seeking cures and treatments for health problems.

“Loss of species and decrease in biodiversity always imply a potential loss of health-related ecosystem services and genetic resources,” the CPF said in a statement. The conservation of the Earth’s biological diversity, of which a large part is found in forests, is increasingly recognized as an important goal,” it added.

It gave the example of an ongoing study on the root system of the common Scots Pine to identify chemical substances found in the microscopic fungi that live symbiotically with the tree, and test them against the age-related eye disease that is a major cause of vision loss in people of advanced age.

 

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