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World Health Day 2011: combat drug resistance

08 April 2011 -- This year's World Health Day focuses on the dangers of resistance to today's infection-fighting wonder drugs. The world is on the brink of losing these miracle cures.

Transcript of the podcast

Veronica Riemer: You're listening to the WHO podcast and my name is Veronica Riemer. This year on World Health Day we look at the dangers of resistance to today's infection-fighting wonder drugs.

When the first antibiotics were introduced in the 1940s, they were considered the miracles of modern medicine. Widespread infections that killed many millions of people every year could now be cured. The human condition took a turn for the better and life expectancy increased significantly. But resistance to these drugs is growing and is jeopardizing the gains made so far, as Dr Margaret Chan, Director-General of WHO explains.

Dr Margaret Chan: The message on this World Health Day is loud and clear. The world is on the brink of losing these miracle cures. The emergence and spread of drug-resistant pathogens has accelerated. More and more essential medicines are failing. The arsenal is shrinking. The speed with which these drugs are being lost far outpaces the development of replacement drugs.

Veronica Riemer: The implications of drug resistance are equally clear. Dr Mario Raviglione, Director of WHO's Stop TB department describes the threat.

Dr Mario Raviglione: Drug resistance or antimicrobial drug resistance is a real global threat.

  • First, it kills. We don't have a precise number but it kills hundreds of thousands of people every year.
  • Second, it challenges greatly - care and control of infectious diseases that in the past were curable - for some of them we are now in the pre-antibiotic era, we are back to the 1930s or 40s.
  • Third, it has not yet been fully realized that drug resistance threatens the achievements of the Millenium Development Goals because it kills children, it kills mothers, it kills HIV, TB and malaria patients.
  • Finally, it compromises health security, and may damage economies.

Veronica Riemer: So what is driving drug resistance? In the vast majority of the countries around the world there are no coordinated plans, and no money to combat this problem. Surveillance systems are weak or absent. Often antibiotics and other antimicrobial drugs are not used properly. Taking these medications when they are not truly needed or without a prescription, or not taking them for the entire course, can cause drug resistance to evolve more rapidly than it would naturally.

In raising livestock, where antibiotics are used in massive amounts, drug resistance is produced in animals, which later transfers to humans. All this facilitates the creation of drug resistance. Dr Keiji Fukuda WHO's Assistant Director-General for Health Security and Environment explains how WHO is working to respond to this threat.

Dr Keiji Fukuda: One of the things we have to realize is that we cannot stop the development of antimicrobial drug resistance. This is the natural thing which these microbes do. But one of the things that we can do is slow down the development so that we can stay ahead of it, so we can detect it, so that we can respond to it effectively and so we can really keep ahead. So I think that the struggle is a long term struggle. We are going to be working on this for years. On the other hand there are steps we can take now.

Veronica Riemer: Today, on World Health Day, WHO issued a six-point policy package to get governments and their drug regulatory systems, civil society and patients on the right track, with the right measures, quickly. Dr Raviglione tells us more about the policy package.

Dr Mario Raviglione: There are six essential measures that we are now recommending to every country to be put in place immediately if we want to stop the spread of drug resistance and creation of drug resistance.

  • Governments must now commit to combat drug resistance through a coherent plan which is carefully budgeted and implemented.
  • Surveillance is crucial and should be rapidly put in place everywhere. That has to be accompanied by proper level of laboratory capacity with rapid diagnostics, to detect and allow the monitoring of what is going on.
  • The supply of high quality drugs is a crucial action point.
  • Regulation and promotion of rational use of drugs is mandatory worldwide.
  • There must be measures put in place everywhere on the spread of infection in health care settings as well as in congregate settings to avoid the transmission.
  • Finally an open dialogue is necessary between governments, funders and industry to identify the novel strategies and novel tools that will allow us to face drug resistance in a more powerful way than we can today.

Veronica Riemer: WHO and its partners are hosting events world wide to disseminate the policy package and raise awareness of the importance of combating drug resistance. If you would like more information about World Health Day 2011 and the six point policy package, please see the links on the transcript page.

That's all for this podcast, thanks for listening. This is Veronica Riemer at the World Health Organization in Geneva.