Antimicrobial Resistance Requires a Manifold Response

Matías A. Loewy

April 07, 2023

BUENOS AIRES — Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) has become a global concern. And while one issue to be addressed is the deficit in research and development for new antibiotics, efforts to tackle this public health threat also should be directed toward promoting more rational prescription practices and strengthening the ability to identify the microorganisms responsible for infections, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). This was the conclusion reached at the fourth Meeting of the WHO AMR Surveillance and Quality Assessment Collaborating Centres Network, which was held in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

"We have to provide assistance to countries to ensure that the drugs are being used responsibly. We can come up with new antibiotics, but the issue at hand is not simply one of innovation: If nothing is done to correct inappropriate prescription practices and to overcome the lack of diagnostic laboratories at the country level, we're going to miss out on those drugs as soon as they become available," Kitty van Weezenbeek, MD, PhD, MPH, director of the AMR Surveillance, Prevention, and Control (AMR/SPC) Department at the WHO's headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, told Medscape's Spanish edition.

Van Weezenbeek pointed out that although there are currently no shortages of antimicrobials, the development and launch of new drugs that fight multidrug-resistant infections — infections for which there are few therapeutic options — has proceeded slowly. "It takes 10 to 15 years to develop a new antibiotic," she said, adding that "the majority of pharmaceutical companies that had been engaged in the development of antimicrobials have filed for bankruptcy."

In 2019, more people died — 1.2 million — from AMR than from malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV combined. Why are there so few market incentives when there is such a great need for those drugs? "One reason is that the pharmaceutical industry makes more money with long-term treatments, such as those for cancer and respiratory diseases. The other problem is that people everywhere are told not to use antibiotics," said van Weezenbeek.

"A course of antibiotics lasts a few days, especially because we're promoting rational use. Therefore, the trend is for the total amount of antimicrobials being used to be lower. So, it’s not as profitable," added Carmem Lucia Pessoa-Silva, MD, PhD, head of the Surveillance, Evidence, and Laboratory Strengthening Unit of the WHO's AMR/SPC Department.

On that note, van Weezenbeek mentioned that member countries are working with pharmaceutical companies and universities to address this problem. The WHO, for its part, has responded by implementing a global mechanism with a public health approach to create a "healthy" and equitable market for these medicines.

AMR is one of the top 10 global threats to human health. But it also has an impact on animal production, agricultural production, and the environment. Strategies to tackle AMR based on the One Health approach should involve all actors, social sectors, and citizens, according to Eva Jané Llopis, PhD, the representative of the Pan American Health Organization/WHO in Argentina.

At the root of the AMR problem is the widespread use of these drugs as growth promoters in animal production — for which several countries have enacted regulations — as well as "misunderstandings" between patients and physicians when there is not sufficient, timely access to laboratory diagnostics, especially in low- and middle-income countries.

"People think that if they're given broad-spectrum antibiotics, they're being prescribed the best antibiotics; and doctors, because there are no laboratory services, prescribe broad-spectrum antibiotics because they want to help patients. But that ends up causing more resistance to drugs, and thus, those antibiotics aren't good for the patients," said van Weezenbeek.

The WHO Global AMR and Use Surveillance System (GLASS) was launched in 2015. Its 2022 report, which marked the end of the system's early implementation period, noted that the reported AMR rates are often lower in countries, territories, and areas with better testing coverage for most pathogen-drug-infection site combinations. However, as Pessoa-Silva acknowledged, monitoring "has not yet generated representative data," because in many cases, countries either do not have surveillance systems or have only recently started implementing them.

Even so, the indicators that are available paint an increasingly worrisome picture. "For example, in many countries, resistance rates to first-line antibiotics were around 10% to 20% with respect to Escherichia coli urinary tract infections and bloodstream bacteriologically confirmed infections. So, the risk of treatment failure is very high," explained Pessoa-Silva.

The latest estimates indicate that every 2 or 3 minutes, somewhere in the world, a child dies from AMR. And the situation is particularly "dramatic" in neonatal intensive care units, where outbreaks of multidrug-resistant infections have a mortality rate of 50%, said Pilar Ramón-Pardo, MD, PhD, lead of the Special Program on AMR at the Pan American Health Organization, the WHO Regional Office for the Americas.

AMR rates also got worse during the pandemic because of the inappropriate prescription of massive amounts of antibiotics to hospitalized patients — something that was not in compliance with guidelines or protocols. Silvia Bertagnolio, MD, is an infectious disease specialist and the head of the Control and Response Strategies Unit in the WHO's AMR Division. She spoke about the global clinical platform data pertaining to more than 1,500,000 patients who were hospitalized for COVID-19. Since 2020, 85% received antimicrobial treatment, despite the fact that only 5% had a concomitant infection at admission. "It's easier to give antibiotics than to make a proper diagnosis," said Bertagnolio.

This article was translated from Medscape's Spanish edition.


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