The overuse of antibiotics is causing one of the most urgent global health problems. In this Q&A we explain what drug-resistant infections are, who is affected and what we can do to stem the rise and spread of drug-resistant infections.
Drug resistance happens when microbes adapt over time to survive the effects of drugs designed to kill them. The most common type of drug resistance is antibiotic resistance. In this process bacteria – not humans or animals – become resistant to antibiotics.
A growing number of common bacterial infections – such as urinary tract infections, gonorrhoea, tuberculosis or pneumonia – have become more dangerous because the antibiotics we have are no longer effective against resistant strains of bacteria.
These infections are called ‘drug-resistant infections’ and sometimes the bacteria behind them are called ‘superbugs’.
Why are drug-resistant infections dangerous?
Drugs like antibiotics are a vital tool for modern medicine, used to prevent and treat infections.
Without effective antibiotics, common infections that can be easily treated now – such as gonorrhoea and urinary tract infections – could become untreatable or need lengthy hospital stays.
Everyday medical interventions, such as chemotherapy, organ transplants and other surgeries, would be less safe to perform due to infection risk.
Childbirth could also become riskier, as it would be more difficult to control infections around the time of birth. This is already a huge problem today in countries like India, Pakistan and Nigeria, where thousands of newborns die every year because of sepsis that is resistant to antibiotics.
Other drugs are also at risk of becoming less effective due to resistance, including antifungals, antiviruses and antimalarials. This makes it harder to treat conditions such as fungal infections, HIV or malaria.
As drug resistance spreads, many medical advances from the past decades will be lost.
Who is affected by drug-resistant infections?
Anyone, anywhere, could be affected. That’s because any infection you could get – including common urinary tract infections – could become resistant to drugs.
Across Europe, it is estimated that 25,000 people die each year as a result of hospital-acquired infections caused by five resistant bacteria, including E. coli, K. Pneumoniae and MRSA.
In other countries, such as India, tuberculosis (TB) continues to be the most dangerous infectious disease. Worldwide, out of 10 million people with the illness in 2017, over half a million cases were caused by drug-resistant TB. This poses new challenges, especially for children who are much more vulnerable to the disease.
Understanding the health burden of drug-resistant infections is challenging because of lack of data and standardised surveillance across different regions and countries. It is possible that many more people are affected than we realise.
How does drug resistance happen?
Like all living things, microbes evolve over time in response to their surroundings. Antibiotic resistance is an example of this evolution, occurring when bacteria change in a way that makes antibiotic substances harmless.
They do this in several ways. Some bacteria can ‘neutralise’ the antibiotic before it can do harm. Others have learned to quickly pump the antibiotic out of their cells. And others can change their outer structure so the antibiotic cannot attach to the bacteria and kill them.
The resistant bacteria survive and multiply. If they are passed on to other people, animals or the environment, resistant infections can spread rapidly.
Drug resistance is a natural phenomenon, but its recent growth is largely driven by human activity.
Misuse and overuse of antibiotics in humans, animals and plants are accelerating the development and spread of drug-resistant infections. Unnecessarily exposing bacteria to medicines creates more opportunities for drug resistance to develop and spread.
In human healthcare too, antibiotics are widely misused. Of the 150 million prescriptions for antibiotics written by doctors in the USA every year, 50 million were not necessary. In OECD countries, 50% of antibiotics prescribed by general practitioners are thought to be inappropriately used – either not needed, or the wrong antibiotic was prescribed.
In some countries, regulation on antibiotic use is poorly enforced or doesn’t exist at all. People can buy antibiotics over the counter to treat viral infections, instead of bacterial ones.
Using antibiotics appropriately – and making them available and affordable where they’re needed – are both important for improving health globally, now and in the future.
When will drug-resistant infections be a problem?
Drug-resistant infections are already a problem.
At least 700,000 people die because of drug-resistant infections every year. If we don’t act now, this number is projected to rise to 10 million by 2050. This means that globally more people will die because of drug-resistant infections than cancer. Drug-resistant infections will cause six times more deaths than diarrhoeal diseases, measles and cholera combined.
All countries are – and will be increasingly – affected. But the greatest health burden will be in low- and middle-income countries where health systems are not as strong.
Genes associated with drug-resistant bacteria have even been found in the Arctic Circle, one of remotest places on earth. First discovered in a hospital patient in India, the genes may have been carried by birds or human visitors.
Are drug-resistant infections reversible?
Drug resistance is a natural evolutionary process that cannot be reversed.
Although we can’t stop it, we can control the pace of resistance development and spread – for example, through better use of existing antibiotics and the development of new ones.
How can we slow down drug-resistant infections?
As a global problem, drug-resistant infections need a worldwide response.
Better use of existing antibiotics across human healthcare and the animal sector is vital. With limited exposure to antibiotics, bacteria will have fewer opportunities to develop resistance.
Healthcare communities around the world are making concrete efforts in this area. For example, Tanzania is changing the way antibiotics are dispensed through a national network of accredited drug dispensing outlets. South Africa is training hospital pharmacists in antimicrobial stewardship and Ghana uses dance to educate communities about when to take antibiotics.
In Europe, the UK has managed to cut the amount of antibiotics used since 2014, and it is now implementing a five-year action plan to reduce this even further.
Alongside ‘antibiotic stewardship’, we need robust surveillance in all countries and across sectors. This is to better understand the presence and spread of resistance and take actions where and when they are needed.
It is also important to develop new low-cost, fast diagnostics. This will help doctors and pharmacists distinguish between bacterial and viral infections and prescribe the correct medication, in the right dose.
To slow down resistance, we need new antibiotics too. Developing new drugs comes with scientific, economic and regulatory challenges, as it’s a very long and expensive process. For these reasons, no new classes of antibiotics have been approved for use in decades.
Preventing infections is another route for curbing drug resistance. Developing new vaccines, access to clean water, better sanitation and hygiene are effective ways of doing that.
What is the difference between antibiotic resistance, antimicrobial resistance and drug-resistant infections?
Antibiotic resistance is the ability of bacteria to change in a way that makes antibiotics ineffective.
Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is a broader term, which includes antibiotic resistance and other types of drug resistance developed by viruses (such as HIV), fungi (such as Candida) and other microbes.
Drug-resistant infections is a term we use to describe illnesses that have been caused by resistant microbes, resulting in an infection that is much harder – or potentially impossible – to treat.