Antimicrobial resistance: conserving life-saving medicines takes everyone’s help

September 2013

The early 20th century was a time of ground-breaking scientific progress. One major advance was the development of penicillin and other antibiotics that has prevented thousands, even millions of people from dying of bacterial infections. As the century progressed, a wealth of better medicines led to stronger weapons against malaria, tuberculosis, and other communicable diseases. By the end of the millennium, new medicines meant that even HIV could become more of a chronic disease.

But if the world does not move now to preserve the ability to treat infectious diseases that played such a key part in increasing life expectancy and improving human health, the 21st century may see the reversal of that progress.

Spread of antimicrobial resistance (AMR)

“The challenge now is that medicines risk becoming less effective,” said Dr Keiji Fukuda, WHO’s Assistant Director-General overseeing the Organization’s work on antimicrobial resistance. “There are two main problems. First, people may have taken medicines unnecessarily, or not as they should be taken. Second, the medicines have not always been top quality. The natural reaction of bacteria, viruses and other pathogens is to fight back against the medicines people take to get rid of them. If people don’t take medicine long enough, or if the drugs aren’t strong enough, resistant pathogens can survive and spread. This, in turn, means that people can remain ill longer and may be more likely to die.”

A hand holding antimalarial drugs
WHO/S. Hollyman

Misuse of medicines in people is not the only problem, however. The development of antimicrobial resistance is also driven by widespread use of antibiotics in livestock to promote growth and prevent illness. The spread of antibiotic resistance in livestock contributes to the spread of resistance in humans through food-borne illness and other routes of infection.

The spread of resistance is further exacerbated by travel and population movement, making it easier for drug-resistant forms of a disease to spread to more people, and from one location to another.

“Antimicrobial resistance is a global problem with serious local impacts,” adds Dr Sylvie Briand, Director of Pandemic and Epidemic Diseases. “Conserving today’s medicines for as long as possible will take action from everyone.”

WHO action on AMR

Conserving our existing anti-infective medicines is only one of many areas of action needed. The WHO is therefore:

  • working to raise the awareness of antimicrobial resistance so more people involved in care-giving to both people and animals and in agriculture sectors can ensure that these medicines are used properly and appropriately;
  • providing guidance and technical expertise to improve infection prevention and control in health-care and community settings;
  • helping countries strengthen surveillance for early detection and their laboratory capacity for better, quicker analysis of drug resistance and its impact on the population;
  • collaborating with other organizations, academia, civil society and industries that can join efforts to tackle the AMR threat;
  • creating new business models to enable development of new tools to detect, treat or prevent these diseases.

Expert meeting on AMR convened by WHO

On 19-20 September, WHO is convening a Strategic and Technical Advisory Group (STAG) in Geneva to bring experts from a range of sectors worldwide to review and help shape a global strategy to tackle the growing challenge of AMR, and to counsel WHO on the coordination role it should be playing in the fight against AMR.