A World Health Organization report warns we're moving toward a world where antibiotics don't work

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Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World. Yesterday we told you about an effort in California to crack down on the use of antibiotics in livestock. It's part of a wider effort to fight the emergence of drug-resistant bacteria. Well, today comes a new report from the World Health Organization that puts the problem into a global context and it's a pretty scary document. It says there's a very real possibility that we're heading into a post-antibiotic era this century, one in which common infections and minor injuries can kill. Laura Piddock is the director of the group Antibiotic Action and a professor of microbiology at the University of Birmingham in England. She says the report is the most comprehensive yet on a crisis that's been growing for years.

Laura Piddock: They've gathered together all available information from around the world and have shown that the number of antimicrobial-resistant microorganisms is really quite frightening.

Werman: We've heard a lot about these fears in the US but when you say this is a global problem, give us a sense of that. Where perhaps is the most surprising or even shocking instance of drug resistance showing up?

Piddock: One of the examples given in this report is Carbapenem-resistant Klebsiella. Klebsiella is a fairly common cause of urinary tract infections and there have been problems with Carbapenem-resistant Klebsiella in the US and in the EU but what we know is that these bacteria also occur in Nigeria and what's frightening about this is that Carbapenems are expensive antibiotics and they're not used in Nigeria. So whilst there's this common perception that a lot of antibiotic-resistant bacteria have come from low income countries and have been spread around the world, clearly there are bacteria getting into low income countries from other parts of the world as well so the flow is always and what is someone's problem today will be everyone's problem tomorrow.

Werman: Give us a brief history of how this post-antibiotic age came about.

Piddock: Bacteria grow very quickly, they double their numbers in a very short amount of time. When they're put under pressure to survive, they're going to accumulate mutations that allow them to survive very, very quickly. So if the hostile environment is antibiotic exposure, then these bacteria are going to emerge. This evolution in process and so the more we're exposing bacteria, the more opportunities for them to become resistance.

Werman: Some public health researchers have said that in terms of a threat to human society, this problem is right up there with climate change. Do you agree with that?

Piddock: Yes, I do.

Werman: What can we do? Because here in the US, there's been lots of talk about restricting the use of antibiotics in livestock and even in people, but would that be enough?

Piddock: We've got to be very clear about the size of the problem, so global surveillance must be done. We need to be very clear about what's the real impact? Which types of patients, which type of drugs are most affected? We know that the easiest way we can start tackling this is to minimize antibiotic use in all settings, whether it is a doctor, a veterinarian, a food producer or indeed ourselves in the home. The less we expose bacteria to antibiotics, the less chance they have to become resistant.

Werman: Laura Piddock is the director of the group Antibiotic Action in Birmingham, England. You can find the full WHO report on antimicrobial resistance at PRI.org. Dr. Piddock, thank you very much.