The pronouncement was an urgent one.
The World Health Organization (WHO) last week put out a list of 12 “priority pathogens” they said have become drug resistant and are threatening human health across the globe.
WHO officials urged pharmaceutical companies worldwide to put new drugs to combat these deadly bacteria on a fast track.
“Antibiotic resistance is growing and we are fast running out of treatment options. If we leave it to market forces alone, the new antibiotics we most urgently need are not going to be developed in time,” Marie-Paule Kieny, PhD, WHO's assistant director-general for Health Systems and Innovation, said in a press release.
Experts interviewed by Healthline agreed the new drugs are a necessary strategy.
But they said other preventative measures need to be taken because these bacteria are likely to adapt and become resistant to whatever new drugs humans come up with.
“Drug discovery is just a piece of a very big puzzle,” Dr. Lee Norman, chief medical officer of the University of Kansas Hospital, told Healthline.
The deadly dozen
WHO officials divided the dozen deadly bacteria into three categories.
At the top were three pathogens listed as “critical” dangers.
These are bacteria that are resistant to multiple drugs. They are a particular threat in hospitals, nursing homes, and with patients who require devices such as ventilators and blood catheters.
These hospital-acquired infections are no small matter.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates there are more than 700,000 of these infections every year in acute care hospitals in the United States. About 75,000 people with these infections die during hospitalization every year.
Six pathogens were listed on WHO’s second grouping of “high priority” bacteria.
The final three pathogens were on a “medium priority” list.
These second and third tiers are comprised of bacteria that are increasingly becoming drug resistant. They are the cause of a number of common diseases such as gonorrhea and salmonella.
“New antibiotics targeting this priority list of pathogens will help to reduce deaths due to resistant infections around the world,” Dr. Evelina Tacconelli, PhD, professor of infectious diseases and head of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Tübingen, said in the press release. “Waiting any longer will cause further public health problems and dramatically impact patient care.”
Norman told Healthline creating the list is a good way to draw attention to this growing problem.
“It’s the right step to take,” he said. “It’s a call to action that’s been coming for a long time.”
Dr. Arjun Srinivasan, the CDC’s associate director of Healthcare-Associated Infection Prevention Programs, agrees.
“It’s helpful to look at data and look at the impact organisms have and then prioritize them,” Srinivasan told Healthline.
Both Norman and Srinivasan concur that new drugs are something society just has to develop, even if there is an assumption that bacteria will simply become resistant to new drugs.
Among other things, you can’t just stand by and allow someone to suffer.
“It’s hard to see people slip away and die,” said Norman.
Other steps to take
Both Norman and Srinivasan, however, agree that new drugs alone won’t solve the problem.
Bacterium have been on Earth longer than humans and have shown an incredible ability to adapt to their surroundings, they said.
“We can’t count on drug development to keep us one step ahead,” said Norman. “We need to be humble about this.”
Both experts say one of the chief ways to reduce the amount of bacterial infections is to make sure hospital rooms and other medical facilities are free of germs.
That is easier said than done, especially in developing countries, the experts said.
Norman said new types of catheters and other devices that are less likely to become contaminated need to be invented.
He added the simple act of people washing their hands frequently and thoroughly could do wonders.
“We should never fall asleep at the switch on this one,” Norman said.
He added more research into the causes of bacterial infections could provide other solutions.
Srinivasan noted that clean water worldwide is another major way to reduce bacterial infections.
“We need to take care of all the basic infrastructure needs,” he said.
Srinivasan added that vaccinations are important. Although most vaccines are for viruses, there are a few for bacteria such as certain types of pneumonia and diphtheria.
He said regular inoculations are vital, too, because they make people healthier and less likely to succumb to a bacterial infection.
All in all, the two experts agree that a multipronged approach to drug resistant bacteria is necessary.
“We have to do all of these things,” said Srinivasan.