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World Health Organization warns of possible superbug 'global health emergency'

Ben Schmitt
| Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017, 12:03 p.m.
Amoxicillin penicillin antibiotics are stored in the pharmacy of a free medical and dental health clinic in Los Angeles on Wednesday, April 27, 2016.
REUTERS
Amoxicillin penicillin antibiotics are stored in the pharmacy of a free medical and dental health clinic in Los Angeles on Wednesday, April 27, 2016.

Antibiotics under development might not be strong enough to combat the growing threat of multi-drug-resistant infections, or superbugs, a World Health Organization report says.

The report found few treatment options for antibiotic-resistant infections identified by WHO as the most threatening, including drug-resistant tuberculosis, which kills about 250,000 people each year.

“Antimicrobial resistance is a global health emergency that will seriously jeopardize progress in modern medicine,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of WHO, said in a statement. “There is an urgent need for more investment in research and development for antibiotic-resistant infections including TB. Otherwise, we will be forced back to a time when people feared common infections and risked their lives from minor surgery.”

About 700,000 people worldwide die annually as a result of drug-resistant infections such as drug-resistant tuberculosis, HIV and malaria.

The authors of the report identified 51 antibiotics and biologicals that are in clinical development. But WHO said only eight of these are deemed to be innovative treatments that will add value to the antibiotic arsenal.

Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious-disease expert living in Pittsburgh, said the report is alarming but has encouraging aspects.

“It is encouraging that there is a pipeline of new products. However, only a limited number of them are innovative enough to be able to stave off resistance for only a short period of time,” said Adalja, a senior associate of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

“The evolutionary mechanisms that bacteria possess will always outpace our ability to develop new products, and resistance to traditional antibiotic compounds is to be expected,” Adalja said. “The few truly innovative solutions detailed in the WHO report, which include vaccines, antibody-based therapies and bacteriophages (viruses that attack bacteria), will hopefully make it to market and allow physicians to have new targeted tools that may change the paradigm of how infection will be treated.”

Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991, bschmitt@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Bencschmitt.

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