NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Overuse of Medicines Responsible for Antibiotic-Resistant Infections

November 22, 2011

Experts are warning that the world is being driven toward the "unthinkable scenario of untreatable infections" because of the growth of superbugs resistant to all antibiotics and the dwindling interest in developing new drugs to combat them, says the Independent (U.K.).

Reports are increasing across Europe of patients with infections that are nearly impossible to treat.

  • The European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (ECDC) said last week that in some countries up to 50 percent of cases of blood poisoning caused by one bug -- K. pneumoniae, a common cause of urinary and respiratory conditions -- were resistant to carbapenems, the most powerful class of antibiotics.
  • Across Europe, the percentage of carbapenem-resistant K. pneumoniae has doubled from 7 percent to 15 percent.
  • The ECDC said it is "particularly worrying" because carbapenems are the last-line antibiotics for treatment of multi-drug-resistant infections.

Resistant strains of E.coli also increased in 2010.

  • Between 25 and 50 percent of E.coli infections in Italy and Spain were resistant to fluoroquinolones in 2010, one of the most important antibiotics for treating the bacterium.
  • In the United Kingdom, 70 patients have been identified carrying NDM-1-containing bacteria, an enzyme that destroys carbapenems.
  • Separate research has shown that more than 80 percent of travelers returning from India to Europe carried the NDM gene in their gut.

Discovering new medicines to treat resistant superbugs has proved increasingly difficult and costly -- they are taken only for a short period and the commercial returns are low.  The European Commission recently launched a plan to boost research into new antibiotics, by promising accelerated approval for new drugs and funding for development through the Innovative Medicines Initiative, a public-private collaboration with the pharmaceutical industry.

World Health Organization scientists warned two years ago that overuse of antibiotics risked returning the world to a pre-antibiotic era in which infections did not respond to treatment.  The warnings have been ignored.

Source: Jeremy Laurance, "Antibiotic-Resistant Infections Spread through Europe," Independent (U.K.), November 18, 2011.

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