BRAZIL – The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) has issued a warning that the overuse of antibiotics and other antimicrobial drugs during the coronavirus pandemic is causing bacteria to develop resistance, rendering these important medicines ineffective over time.
Drug-resistant infections have increased in Latin American countries such as Argentina, Ecuador, Guatemala, Paraguay, and Uruguay, according to a recent PAHO Epidemiological Alert.
Furthermore, there has been a spike in the emergence of bacteria resistant to antimicrobials across the region, which have likely contributed to the rise in mortality in hospitalized COVID-19 patients.
“We’ve seen the use of antimicrobials rise to unprecedented levels, with potentially serious consequences,” PAHO director Carissa Etienne said. “We risk losing the drugs we rely on to treat common infections,” she added.
Antimicrobials are being misused outside of hospital settings, and drugs like ivermectin and chloroquine are being used as unproven treatments, despite strong evidence that they do not benefit COVID-19 patients.
Some regional authorities, such as far-right President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, have actively encouraged the use of ivermectin and chloroquine.
According to data from regional hospitals, 90% to 100% of hospitalized COVID-19 patients were given an antimicrobial as part of their treatment, while only 7% of them had a secondary infection that necessitated the use of those drugs, according to Etienne.
Antibiotic resistance is one of the most serious public health issues of our time. For instance, every year in the United States, at least 2.8 million people become infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and more than 35,000 people die as a result.
Combating this threat is a public health priority that necessitates a global collaborative approach across sectors.
Antibiotic misuse and overuse have long been viewed as a potential threat that could lead to the emergence of so-called superbugs resistant to existing treatments, a problem exacerbated by the pandemic.
“Throughout the pandemic we have taken the power of antimicrobials for granted,” she said, adding that it may take months or years before the full impact of their misuse and overuse becomes evident.
Few new antibiotics have entered drug company pipelines because they are much less profitable than other medicines and their use must be limited to remain effective.
“Just as we were able to channel our collective capacity to develop diagnostics and vaccines for COVID in record time, we need commitment and collaboration to develop new and affordable antimicrobials,” Etienne said.
Increases in drug-resistant infections have been reported outside of the Americas, including in the United Kingdom, where Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser at the UK Health Security Agency, declared that it was a “hidden pandemic.”