The names of who topped the Oscar winners' list may be making headlines, but there's another list of names you might want to pay attention to: the world's worst superbugs.
On Monday, the World Health Organization released a list of 12 families of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that pose the greatest threat to human health. These are bacteria that can't be killed by the antibiotics that used to get rid of them, including some of our most harsh and "last resort" drugs. That means we're more vulnerable to bacterial infections like E. coli, at a time when drug companies have no real interest in developing new antibiotics.
The list includes twelve bacteria families, divided into three categories—critical, high priority, and medium priority. The three most urgent superbugs for which we need new antibiotics are Acinetobacter baumannii, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and Enterobacteriaceae, which includes E. coli, a bacterium that can be spread through food and make people very ill.
Though there are a number of bacteria that are showing signs of resistance, the WHO worked with experts in the field to narrow down the list to the most immediate threats: bacteria that cause deadly infections, are resistant to multiple antibiotics, and can confer that resistance to other bacteria, for example.
The WHO put the list together in hopes of focusing the research and development of new antibiotics where they're most needed. Unfortunately, many big pharmaceutical companies have been reluctant to invest in finding new antibiotics. It's a costly process that ultimately does not provide a huge return on investment.
Unlike medications for chronic illnesses, like diabetes, that need to be taken for life, antibiotics typically only need to be used once to effectively knock out an infection. That means less pay back for pharma companies, and less incentive to search for these critical drugs. Experts say we may need to lean more on public research groups to find new options.
"Antibiotic resistance is growing, and we are fast running out of treatment options," Dr.Marie-Paule Kieny, WHO's Assistant Director-General for Health Systems and Innovation, said in a press release. "If we leave it to market forces alone, the new antibiotics we most urgently need are not going to be developed in time."
Part of the problem, and solution, is also behavioral. Bacteria naturally evolve resistance to antibiotics, and we've known this for a long time. But for the past few decades there's been a global tendency to overuse antibiotics. This includes in a medical setting, such as prescribing an antibiotic for someone who doesn't need it, like a patient with a viral infection. It also include agricultural use: antibiotics are used regularly on farms to ward off disease and fatten up livestock. This overuse of antibiotics has hastened the development of resistance in a number of diseases.
We need to get serious about curbing our use of antibiotics if we have any hope of slowing resistance. Otherwise, we're bound for a future where none of our antibiotics are effective any longer, making surgery impossible and even a paper cut a potentially mortal wound. It would also help if pharmaceutical companies worried a little less about the bottom line and little more about, I don't know, the survival of our species.
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