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India beware: WHO publishes list of drug-resistant bugs

02 March 2017

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has published its first-ever list of antibiotic-resistant ''priority pathogens'', a catalogue of 12 bacteria families that pose a great threat to human health – and most of these bugs are present in India, which is considered a hotbed of drug-resistant bacteria.

The list was drawn up in a bid to guide and promote research and development of new antibiotics, as part of WHO's efforts to address growing resistance among bacteria to medicines currently in use.

It highlights the threat of gram-negative bacteria that have inculcated the ability to resist treatment, and are capable of passing on genetic material that allows other microbes to become drug-resistant as well. Consequently, ailments such as urinary tract infections – which were eminently treatable until a few years ago – have now become life-threatening (See: Superbugs may be spreading faster than thought: study).

''This list is a new tool to ensure that R&D responds to urgent public health needs,'' said Dr Marie-Paule Kieny, WHO's assistant director-general for health systems and innovation. ''Antibiotic resistance is growing, and we are fast running out of treatment options. If we leave it to market forces, the new antibiotics we urgently need won't be developed in time.''

The WHO list is divided into three categories - critical, high and medium priority. The most critical group includes multidrug resistant bacteria that target hospitals, nursing homes and patients dependent on life-preserving devices such as ventilators and blood catheters. They include Acinetobacter, Pseudomonas and various Enterobacteriaceae (such as Klebsiella, E coli, Serratia and Proteus). They can cause deadly infections such as bloodstream infections and pneumonia. These bacteria have become resistant to a large number of antibiotics, including carbapenems and third-generation cephalosporins – the best available option for treating multi-drug resistant bacteria.

The second and third tiers in the list – the high and medium priority categories – contain other increasingly drug-resistant bacteria that cause more common diseases such as gonorrhoea and food poisoning due to salmonella.

The matter will come up at a meeting of G20 health experts in Berlin this week. ''We need effective antibiotics for our health systems. We have to take joint action today for a healthier tomorrow. Therefore, we will discuss and bring the G20's attention to the fight against antimicrobial resistance. WHO's first global priority pathogen list is an important new tool to secure and guide R&D related to new antibiotics,'' says Hermann Grφhe, federal minister of health, Germany.

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