In the war against disease, our frontline attack is collapsing fast. The World Health Organization (WHO), in a recent report, says that antibiotic resistance is growing fast and getting more widespread. Analysing data from 114 countries, the WHO warns of a “post-antibiotic” world where common, but potentially lethal, diseases like diarrhoea, pneumonia, septicaemia, etc—hitherto treatable—would become fatal. The problem is not just one of disease burden but also of the costs that come along with it—India’s fight against multi drug resistant (MDR) and the much rarer extensively drug resistant (XDR) tuberculosis (TB), the Revised National TB Control Programme estimated in 2013, would cost $731 million spread over 2012-2017.
WHO blames poor use of antibiotics for the spurt in prolific drug resistance. Bacterial genomes are naturally geared for developing drug resistance. So, doctors over-prescribing broad-spectrum antibiotics and patients not completing the course have caused furious ‘resistance’ development and transmission. Compounding the problem is the slump in antibiotic discovery that began in the 1990s; while 19 new anti-bacterial drugs, according to US FDA records, got approval in 1984, between 2010 and 2012, only one did. This slowdown is partly attributed to many pharma majors, including Pfizer, Eli Lily and Sanofi, shutting down their antibiotic research to focus on the more profitable drug-development for chronic diseases. How can this be remedied, though? Thankfully, as the Wall Street Journal reports, there has been some show of interest in antibiotics recently—
UK-based GlaxoSmithKline PLC is receiving $200 million from the US government for its antibiotic programme while Switzerland’s Roche Holding AG has invested $111 million in RQX Pharamceuticals Inc, which focuses on developing antibiotic. But what is, perhaps, most crucial is vaccine research. Aiding the natural immune response to pathogen will not only help nip the problem of virulence in the bud, an effective vaccine programme will also help check budget-busting health programmes that focus on treatment rather than prevention.