The World Health Organization has issued a warning that increasingly drug-resistant infections in both rich and developing nations are threatening to make once-treatable diseases incurable. CBS News Correspondent Elizabeth Kaledin reports.
Scientists have been urging action for years to fight the growing problem of infections becoming impervious to treatment. The WHO's new report adds to the alarm.
Bacteria, parasites and viruses all naturally evolve to fight treatment. It's classic survival of the fittest: Bugs exposed to drugs that don't kill them become stronger, able to withstand subsequent treatment attempts, and pass on that drug resistance to their next generation.
Misuse of medications, particularly antibiotics, speeds up this process.
In developed countries, people often overuse antibiotics, demanding them for viruses like colds. The body always harbors germs, so each unneeded antibiotic dose is an opportunity for them to evolve.
"Patients have to stop stockpiling them and demanding them. Doctors have to be able to look the patient in the eye and say, 'You have a cold. You don't need an antibiotic, '" said Dr. Stuart Levy, Tufts University School of Medicine.
Impoverished developing countries have the opposite problem. Many patients can't afford the full course needed to cure an infection. Antibiotics may be sold at market stalls where people buy a few doses without a doctor's exam.
Animals add to the problem. Half the world's antibiotics are used on the farm, sometimes to treat illness but mostly to help healthy animals grow bigger. That encourages drug-resistant germs that cause food poisoning, the WHO said.
The WHO report listed several examples on the effect of antibiotic resistance. Penicillin and tetracycline, which used to easily treat gonorrhea, were on the list.
"Every bacterial agent has learned over the last-- not so long50 years to resist the most potent of our antibiotics," said Dr. Levy.
Nobody counts deaths from drug-resistant infections. The CDC says 88,000 Americans a year die of infections they catch in the hospital, and many are resistant to at least one antibiotic, complicating treatment attempts.
Wiser use of antimicrobial drugs is the solution, the WHO said. It recommended increased funding to help poor countries afford enough antibiotics, and education for poor and rich nations alike to avoid misuse.
The WHO also recommended that human antibiotics not be used as growth promoters for animals. Europe already has banned several such drugs. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has debated stricter rules here for several years, but is under industry pressure not to tighten animal drug restrictions.
As the WHO urges more education and prudent use of antibiotics to reverse drug resistance, the race is on to develop new drugs.
But, it may take awhile. Antibiotics are not easy to produce, taking between 12 and 15 years to bring to market.
A sobering thoughtand a reminder, doctors say, to make better use of the ones we have.
©MMII CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed