In September, the Centers for Disease Control sounded the alarm: Unless we stopped misusing and overusing antibiotics, they could become useless against disease-causing bacteria that are becoming resistant to them - evolving into so-called "superbugs."
We could find ourselves living in a "post-antibiotic" era, the CDC warned, one in which common infections and minor injuries could once again prove fatal because antibiotics are no longer effective.
Now the World Health Organization is saying that era is already here. Superbugs able to resist the most powerful antibiotics - drugs known as carbapenems - have been found all over the globe. And the problem is only getting worse.
One of the most common superbugs is MRSA, a staph infection that kills an estimated 19,000 Americans each year, mostly in hospitals and convalescent facilities. Many countries - including Canada, Great Britain, Japan and Australia - report they have patients with the dangerous sexually transmitted disease gonorrhea that is resistant to all available antibiotics. And more than half the patients in many countries can no longer be treated for E. coli, which can cause meningitis and infections of the blood and kidneys.
A Doctors Without Borders physician reports, "We see horrendous rates of antibiotic resistance wherever we look in our field operations."
It continues to be important for doctors to responsibly prescribe antibiotics; for patients to use them as intended; and to stop routine, low-dosage use of the drugs in the livestock and poultry industries. Lawmakers must give the Food and Drug Administration greater authority over use of antibiotics among farm animals. Currently, more than 70 percent of all antibiotics in the United States are given to farm animals, either to bulk them up faster or as a preventive measure in crowded, dirty conditions.
But the existing prevalence of superbugs suggests those steps alone aren't enough anymore. We'll need to take stronger measures to prevent infections in the first place, since it's become harder to treat them after the fact. And the world will need to invest in research to develop new medicines that will be more effective against bacteria resistant to what's available now.
That investment isn't lucrative to drug companies more interested in developing long-term maintenance medicines rather than ones that are taken for short periods of time. A federal Manhattan Project-style initiative might be called for in this case.