The world is on course for a future of uncontrollable epidemics, according to an explosive new report released this week by the World Health Organization.
The overuse and misuse of antibiotics has led to the evolution of superbugs that can withstand even the most powerful antibiotics, the WHO said in the report. That is not a prediction, but is happening right now, the organization said.
"The world is headed for a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries which have been treatable for decades can once again kill," said Keiji Fukuda, the WHO’s assistant director-general for health security.
Antibiotic resistance has the potential to affect anyone, of any age, in any country, the report said. It is now a major threat to public health and "the implications will be devastating".
In its first global report on antibiotic resistance, with data from 114 countries, the WHO said superbugs able to evade event the hardest-hitting antibiotics - a class of drugs called carbapenems - have now been found in all regions of the world.
For gonorrhoea, a dangerous sexually-transmitted disease that infects more than a million people across the world every day, antibiotic treatments are failing fast as superbug forms of the bacteria that causes it outpace them.
At least 10 countries - including Austria, Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Japan, Norway, South Africa, Slovenia and Sweden, now report having patients with gonorrhoea that is totally untreatable.
Only a handful of new antibiotics have been developed and brought to market in the past few decades and it is a race against time to find more, as bacterial infections increasingly evolve into "superbugs" resistant to even the most powerful last-resort medicines reserved for extreme cases.
One of the best known superbugs, MRSA, is alone estimated to kill around 19,000 people every year in the United States - far more than HIV and AIDS - and a similar number in Europe.
Resistance to one of the most widely used antibiotics for urinary tract infections caused by E. coli - medicines called fluoroquinolones - is also very widespread, the WHO said.
In the 1980s, when these drugs were first introduced, resistance was virtually zero, according to the WHO report. But now there are countries in many parts of the world where the drugs are ineffective in more than half of patients.
"Unless we take significant actions to improve efforts to prevent infections and also change how we produce, prescribe and use antibiotics, the world will lose more and more of these global public health goods and the implications will be devastating," Fukuda said in a statement.
Jennifer Cohn of the international medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières agreed with the WHO's assessment and confirmed the problem had spread to many corners of the world.
"We see horrendous rates of antibiotic resistance wherever we look in our field operations," she said.
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