The World Health Organisation (WHO) has expressed fears that the coronavirus pandemic will increase the global threat of antimicrobial resistance as many coronavirus (COVID-19) patients receive antibiotics as part of their treatment regime.
The UN health agency, in a statement released via its website on Monday, raised the concerns after data from about 150 countries showed that the rate at which many bacteria are becoming antibiotic-resistant was very high.
The agency said it is concerned that the trend will further be fuelled by the inappropriate use of antibiotics during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Antimicrobial resistance occurs when ailments cannot be treated with known antibiotics. This occurs when the bacteria have become resistant to the drug through mutation.
“Evidence shows that only small proportion of COVID-19 patients need antibiotics to treat subsequent bacterial infections and the organization has issued guidance not to provide antibiotic therapy or prophylaxis to patients with mild COVID-19 or to patients with suspected or confirmed moderate COVID-19 illness unless there is a clinical indication to do so, “it said.
WHO Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus said many countries, Nigeria inclusive, are now monitoring and reporting on antibiotic resistance – marking a major step forward in the global fight against drug resistance.
Mr Ghebreyesus, however, said the data the countries provide reveals that a worrying number of bacterial infections are increasingly resistant to the medicines at hand to treat them.
“As we gather more evidence, we see more clearly and more worryingly how fast we are losing critically important antimicrobial medicines all over the world”.
“These data underscore the importance both of protecting the antimicrobials we have and developing new ones, to effectively treat infections, preserve health gains made in the last century and ensure a secure future,” said Mr Ghebreyesus.
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High rates of resistance among antimicrobials frequently used to treat common infections, such as urinary tract infections or some forms of diarrhoea, indicate that the world is running out of effective ways to tackle these diseases.
For instance, the rate of resistance to ciprofloxacin, an antimicrobial frequently used to treat urinary tract infections, varied from 8.4 per cent to 92.9 per cent in 33 reporting countries.
Since the WHO’s Global Antimicrobial Resistance and Use Surveillance System (GLASS) report in 2018, participation has grown exponentially.
In only three years of existence, the system now aggregates data from more than 64 000 surveillance sites with more than 2 million patients enrolled from 66 countries across the world. In 2018 the number of surveillance sites was 729 across 22 countries.
More countries are also reporting on the recently approved indicator on antimicrobial resistance (AMR) as part of the Sustainable Development Goal monitoring.
Assistant Director-General for antimicrobial resistance at WHO, Hanan Balkhy, said the enormous expansion of countries, facilities and patients covered by the new AMR surveillance system allows better documenting on the emerging public health threat of AMR.
Ms Balkhy, said, “We believe this clear guidance on the use of antibiotics in the COVID-19 pandemic will both help countries tackle COVID-19 effectively and prevent the emergence and transmission of Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) in the context of the pandemic.”
“We must bolster global cooperation and partnerships including between the public and private sectors to provide financial and non-financial incentives for the development of new and innovative antimicrobials,” added Ms Balkhy.
WHO remains concerned by declining investment (including in the private sector) and lack of innovation in the development of new antimicrobial treatments – factors that are undermining efforts to combat drug-resistant infections.
To support this effort, WHO has released two documents on target product profiles to guide development of new treatments for common resistant bacterial infections and an economic model that simulates the costs, risks, and possible return on investment of antibacterial drug development.