GENEVA - At least 700,000 people die every year due to drug-resistant diseases, including 230,000 from multidrug resistant tuberculosis, according to the World Health Organization.
Last year, a U.N. report predicted growing antimicrobial resistance could cause 10 million deaths each year by 2050 and trigger a financial crisis.
The WHO said the health threat affects everyone, but those most at risk include people whose immune system is compromised, the elderly, and patients undergoing chemotherapy, surgery and organ transplants.
Fifty antibiotics are in the pipeline, said WHO's Senior Adviser on Antimicrobial Resistance, Peter Beyer, but the majority only have limited benefits when compared to existing antibiotics.
"We are actually running out of antibiotics that are effective against these resistant bacteria," he said. "It takes maybe 10 years to develop a new antibiotic, so if you go back to phase one, we know exactly what, at best, what we can get in the next 10 years. And we really see that it is insufficient to counter the current threat."
Scientifically, Beyer said, it is very difficult to come up with truly new innovative antibiotics. In addition, there is little financial incentive for pharmaceutical companies to develop a new drug because it is risky, it takes a lot of time and money, and the monetary returns are likely to be poor, he said.
However, he added, he hopes the industry changes its position and develops new antibiotics because drug companies also need these new medications.
"For example, if they want to sell products for chemotherapy, they really need effective antibiotics because otherwise you cannot do effective chemotherapy, in particular in countries like India or Bangladesh where infection prevention control is not that good," Beyer said. "So, I do think that the industry, at one point in time, they will turn around. That is our hope. And, we, of course, try to convince governments to invest as well."
In the meantime, Beyer said, one of the most cost-effective, life-saving measures is better prevention control in hospitals. Instead of inventing new drugs to treat people who get infected in hospitals, he said, it makes more sense to protect them from getting infected in the first place.