The World Health Organization warned on Monday that a dozen antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” pose an enormous threat to human health, and urged hospital infection-control experts and pharmaceutical researchers to focus on fighting the most dangerous pathogens first.
The rate at which new strains of drug-resistant bacteria have emerged in recent years, prompted by overuse of antibiotics in humans and livestock, terrifies public health experts. Many consider the new strains just as dangerous as emerging viruses like Zika or Ebola.
“We are fast running out of treatment options,” said Dr. Marie-Paule Kieny, the W.H.O. assistant director general who released the list. “If we leave it to market forces alone, the new antibiotics we most urgently need are not going to be developed in time.”
Britain’s chief medical officer, Sally C. Davies, has described drug-resistant pathogens as a national security threat equivalent to terrorism, and Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the recently retired director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, called them “one of our most serious health threats.”
Last week, the European Food Safety Authority and European Center for Disease Prevention and Control estimated that superbugs kill 25,000 Europeans each year; the C.D.C. has estimated that they kill at least 23,000 Americans a year. (For comparison, about 38,000 Americans die in car crashes yearly.)
Most of these deaths occur among older patients in hospitals or nursing homes, or among transplant and cancer patients whose immune systems are suppressed. But some are among the young and healthy: A new study of 48 American pediatric hospitals found that drug-resistant infections in children, while still rare, had increased sevenfold in eight years, which the authors called “ominous.”
New antibiotic candidates are in short supply, Dr. Kieny said, because 70 years of research have made it harder to find new ones, and because they are not very profitable for pharmaceutical companies. Patients are typically cured with a few pills and, to prevent the emergence of resistant strains, doctors are pressured to avoid prescribing the newest drugs except in extreme cases.
The W.H.O. hopes countries will consider ways to encourage more research. Britain has proposed $1 billion “prizes” for any new family discovered, and it and China have pledged $72 million toward a fund to support antibiotic research.
The agency would also like to see more collaboration between medical doctors and veterinarians, she said, because resistance that arises in animals can spread to humans.
Some bacteria resistant to all known antibiotics have been found. They are rare and, thus far, usually strike patients whose immune systems are weak. But once they take hold, they are virtually unstoppable, and victims usually die.