Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 19 March 2012

An end to modern medicine?

A warning by the head of the WHO that antibiotic resistance is so serious it may lead to an end to modern medicine should alert health authorities to contain this most serious health crisis.


Last week the head of the World Health Organisation sounded a large alarm bell on how antibiotics may in future not work anymore, due to resistance of bacteria to the medicines.

Antibiotic resistance has been a growing problem for some time now.  From time to time, there will be news reports of the outbreak of diseases, old and new, that cannot be treated because the bacteria have grown more powerful than the antibiotics used against them.

And experts have been warning about how the wrong use of antibiotics has given the bacteria the opportunity to develop resistance, enabling them to become immune to the medicines.

What is needed, of course, is a multi-prong strategy to prevent the abuse and wrongful use of antibiotics.  Drug companies should not over-market their products.  Doctors should not over-prescribe.  And antibiotics should not be used for animals that are not sick but to fatten them and thus enable higher profits.

Now, the Director General of the WHO has given a big warning that the growing threat of resistance may mean an end to modern medicine, and the entry of the world into a post-antibiotic era.

Speaking at a meeting of infectious disease experts in Copenhagen last week, Dr Margaret Chan said there is a global crisis in antibiotics caused by rapidly evolving resistance among microbes responsible for common infections that threaten to turn them into untreatable diseases.

Every antibiotic ever developed was at risk of becoming useless.

“A post-antibiotic era means in effect an end to modern medicine as we know it.  Things as common as strep throat or a child’s scratched knee could once again kill.  For patients infected with some drug resistant pathogens, mortality has been shown to increase by around 50%.

“Some sophisticated interventions, like hip replacement, organ transplants, cancer chemotherapy and care of pre-term infants, would become far more difficult or even too dangerous to undertake.”

Dr Chan called for action to restrict the use of antibiotics in food production. “Worldwide the fact that greater quantities of antibiotics are used in healthy animals than in unhealthy humans is a cause for great concern,” she said.

She called for measures including doctors prescribing antibiotics appropriately, patients following their treatment and restrictions on the use of antibiotics in animals.

These actions have in fact been suggested already for many years, including by the health group REACT, based in Sweden, by health networks such as Health Action International, and locally by the Consumers’ Association of Penang.

The WHO itself has the scope to do much more in alerting health authorities and in building the capacity especially of developing countries to act.

There are forms of TB that have become untreatable because of multi-drug resistance.  The TB pathogen has become immune to many antibiotics.  This has resulted in a resurgence of the deadly disease.  The story is the same for many other pathogens causing other diseases.

As Global Trends reported in June 2011, a worrying development is the discovery of a gene, known as NDM-1 that has the ability to alter bacteria and make them highly resistant to all known drugs, including the most potent antibiotics.

In 2010, there were reports of many cases in India and Pakistan and in European countries.  At the time, only two types of bacteria were found to be hosting the NDM-1 gene – E Coli and Klebsiella pneumonia.

But it was then feared that the gene would transfer to other bacteria as well, since it was found to easily jump from one type of bacteria to another. If this happened, antibiotic resistance would spread rapidly, making it difficult to treat many diseases.

These concerns have been proven to be justified.  In May 2011, the Times of India published an article based on interviews with British scientists from Cardiff University who had first reported on NDM-1’s existence.

The scientists found that the NDM-1 gene has been jumping among various species of bacteria at a “superfast speed" and that it “has a special quality to jump between species without much of a problem”.

While the gene was found only in E Coli when it was initially detected in 2006, now the scientists had found NDM-1 in more than 20 different species of bacteria.  NDM1 can move at an unprecedented speed making more and more species of bacteria drug-resistant.

Since there are very few new antibiotics in the pipeline, when the resistance grows among the whole range of bacteria to the existing drugs, human beings will be more and more at the mercy of the increasingly deadly bacteria.

In May 2011, there was an outbreak of a deadly disease caused by a new strain of the E-Coli bacteria that killed more than 20 people and affected another 2,000 in Germany.

They were affected by a new strain of the already rare 0104 type of E-Coli. There are other common types of E Coli which normally cause only a mild ailment. The WHO said the variant had “never been seen in an outbreak situation before.”

Although the “normal” E-coli usually produces mild sickness in the stomach, the new strain of E-Coli 0104 causes bloody diarrhoea and severe stomach cramps, while in some of the more serious cases so far it also causes haemolytic-uraemic syndrome (HUS), which damages blood cells and the kidneys.

A major problem is that the bacterium is resistant to antibiotics.  Eradication of these kinds of bacteria is impractical partly because they are able to evolve so rapidly, according to medical experts.

Now that the WHO chief has sounded the alarm bell, health authorities should redouble their efforts to contain the crisis.  An “end to modern medicine” and a “post-antibiotic era” are predictions too horrible to imagine.