Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Due to the lack of new antibiotics in the pipeline, current drugs must be better monitored and prescribed before the problem of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) reaches a "Titanic" stage, World Health Organization scientists warned Tuesday as they launch a campaign to promote the use of a monitoring tool, AWaRe.

Why it matters: The growing level of superbugs is a potentially "catastrophic" global threat that could have a yearly death toll of 10 million people by 2050. WHO says using AWaRe would be one tool in promoting its goal that 60% of all antibiotics used come from the "access" category of antibiotics, or what's typically thought of as the first or second line of defense.

The backdrop: WHO's essential medicines list divides antibiotics into 3 categories: "access," "watch," and "reserve" with recommendations for when each category should be used.

But, WHO scientists say too many countries either don't have appropriate access to antibiotics or are using antibiotics incorrectly — including for wrong diagnoses, animal husbandry and even plants — causing an increase in AMR.

  • "We need to keep antibiotics working for everyone," which calls for proper monitoring and management of prescriptions, Mariângela Simão, WHO's assistant director general for access to medicines, said in a press briefing.
  • The scientists pointed to the concerning spread of resistant gram-negative bacteria, including Acinetobacter, E. coli and Klebsiella pneumoniae, which often strike hospital patients with problems like pneumonia, bloodstream infections, sepsis, wound or surgical site infections, and meningitis.
  • Another problem is the huge gap between low- and middle-income countries in access to effective and appropriate antibiotics. Simão says more than 1 million children die due to treatable pneumonia, likely from lack of access to appropriate antibiotics.

The bottom line: If AMR is not halted, "this will probably lead to a halt in modern medicine as we know it today," says Hanan Balkhy, WHO's assistant director general for antimicrobial resistance.

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