When antibiotics first came into use in the 1940s they were, quite rightly, hailed as miracle drugs, bringing the possibility of treating conditions that would otherwise have caused serious illness or in many cases resulted in death.
But only 70 years on many diseases have become resistant to the drugs designed to treat them, and even the most powerful antimicrobial medicines that are regarded as a last line of defence are proving ineffective.
Drug resistance is not a new or unexpected phenomenon – micro-organisms are incredibly effective at developing immunity to the chemicals used to kill them. But the human race has not only failed to control the development of resistance but has even aided and abetted it, albeit unwittingly.
Now the World Health Organisation has stepped in to focus attention on the growing threat by taking the theme ‘Combat Drug Resistance’ for World Health Day 2011.
In the developed world it is the so-called ‘superbugs’ such as MRSA that grab the headlines, but diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria, leprosy, gonorrhea, syphilis and shigella are again threatening to wreak havoc across the globe.
According to the WHO, underuse, overuse and misuse of antibiotics are the main reasons for growing resistance, including: the lack of cheap, available drugs in the developing economies to effect a total cure; the prescribing of drugs in the developed economies when these are not warranted and the failure of patients to complete the course; and the widespread circulation of substandard and counterfeit drugs with less than the required dose of active ingredient.
None of these challenges is insurmountable, but it will take a determined, co-ordinated and global effort.
To overcome the problem of drug resistance requires more than just the development of new classes of antibiotics. Unless there is a marked change of attitude – among patients, physicians, the healthcare industry and governments – even the newest, most powerful anti-infectives will be rendered impotent within a few years.
It is everybody’s problem, and everybody needs to take responsibility before it is too late, not just for us, but for future generations.