Health & Fitness

Resistant bacteria scare

The WHO has warned of drug resistant bacteria that are a threat to human existence. FILE PHOTO | NMG
The WHO has warned of drug resistant bacteria that are a threat to human existence. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has published a list of bacteria that require new antibiotics because they have developed resistance towards drugs used to treat lethal infections, which they cause.

This list of super bugs, released for the first time in the history of the organisation, is aimed at tackling the global antibiotic resistance challenge that has led to an influx of untreatable and difficult to manage diseases.

The targeted drug resistant bacteria (such as Acinetobacter, Pseudomonas, Klebsiella, E.coli, Serratia and Proteus) are deemed significant to human health.

They are responsible for a myriad of ailments including: diarrhoea, pneumonia, gonorrhoea, stomach complications, lung illnesses, urinary tract problems and fatal wound infections that attack patients undergoing surgery and other life-saving medical interventions such as blood and kidney transfusions or chemotherapy for cancer treatment.

The new list is aimed at guiding research and development into new drugs that can effectively fight these ‘hard-core’ bacteria.

But this is usually a long, tedious and costly process that takes years to complete.

Health experts are thus concerned that without adequate measures to tackle resistance and safeguard existing drugs, the world risks running out of treatment options before new antibiotics are developed.

“And we might get the new drugs then lose them shortly thereafter if we don’t address factors fuelling the drug resistance challenge,” Dr Samuel Kariuki, director of the centre for Microbiology Research at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri) told the Business Daily.

He said a major contributing factor to the problem is the misuse of antibiotics in the livestock sector, which currently consumes more than 50 per cent of antibiotics manufactured globally.

“Once resistance bugs are discovered in animals, it’s only a matter of time before they get transmitted to human beings as we share the same environment and interact with animals all the time,” said Dr Kariuki who is also an infectious disease professor and chairman of the Global Antibiotic Resistance Partnership (GARP) in Kenya.

The impact of this problem has already reached heightened levels. In 2015, scientists discovered bacteria resistant to a powerful antibiotic known as colistin in China.

This is a drug of last resort that is used to treat bacterial infections when all the other antibiotics have failed.
The resistance appeared to have developed in livestock before being detected in hospital patients. China is the global leader in the use of antibiotics in livestock.

Locally, once treatable ailments such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, diarrhoea, gonorrhoea and bloodstream infections have become difficult and much more expensive to manage due to the drug resistance problem.

As a result, Dr Kariuki said that vulnerable populations like children, the elderly, HIV patients and adults with compromised immunity are dying in large numbers.

A 2014 report commissioned by the United Kingdom (UK) government estimated that drug-resistant infections kill approximately 700,000 people worldwide each year. This figure is expected to increase to 10 million by 2050 if the resistance problem persists.

The WHO notes that most of these deaths will be in low and middle income nations like Kenya where rapid population growth and rising income levels are increasing the demand for animal proteins such as milk, meat and eggs.

Meanwhile, land previously reserved for livestock production is increasingly being used for real estate development to meet the growing housing demand in cities and major towns as rural-urban migration surges.

As a result, farmers are gradually adopting intensive production systems that entail rearing large volumes of livestock – be it poultry, cattle, pigs or fish – in confined spaces that enhance the development and spread of bacterial infections among these animals.