GENEVA - The world is doing far too little to combat the misuse of antibiotics which is fuelling drug resistance and allowing long-treatable diseases to become killers, the World Health Organisation said Wednesday.
In its first ever analysis of how countries are responding to the problem of antimicrobial resistance - when bugs become immune to existing drugs - the UN health agency revealed "major gaps" in all six regions of the world.
"This is the single greatest challenge in infectious diseases today," Keiji Fukuda, WHO's assistant director general for health security, said in a statement.
"All types of microbes, including many viruses and parasites, are becoming resistant to medicines," he warned, voicing particular concern over "bacteria that are progressively less treatable by available antibiotics."
"This is happening in all parts of the world, so all countries must do their part to tackle this global threat," he said.
A year ago, WHO issued a hard-hitting study on the phenomenon, cautioning that without significant action the world would be headed for "a post-antibiotic era", where people will be dying from common infections and minor injuries.
The UN agency has since conducted a survey of 133 countries asking governments to assess their response to resistance to antimicrobial medicines used to treat conditions like pneumonia, tuberculosis, malaria and HIV.
While a lot of work is being done to address the problem, Wednesday's report - which breaks down the data on a regional basis and does not provide country-specific information - warned that far more was needed.
"Much more needs to be done to avoid losing the ability to practice medicine and treat both common and serious illnesses," Fukuda said.
Only 34 of the 133 countries that took part in the survey had comprehensive national plans in place to fight resistance to antibiotics and other antimicrobial medicines, the report said.
One major concern is that sales of antibiotics and other antimicrobial drugs without prescription remain widespread around the world.
Counterfeit and low-quality drugs have also been reported in many regions, causing headaches since such medicines often do not contain the right amount of the active ingredient, "resulting in sub-optimal dosing," the report said.
This was of particular concern in the African region, where it was a "general problem," the report found, warning though that only eight of the 47 WHO member states in Africa had responded to the survey.
Many countries also lack standard treatment guidelines, which hikes the possibility of overuse of the drugs by both doctors and the public, it warned.
"Both overuse and misuse of antimicrobial medicines accelerate the emergence of resistant microorganisms," it stressed.
Monitoring of the use of such drugs was also "infrequent" in most regions, although European countries had made progress in this area, WHO said.
The lack of oversight is especially worrying since public awareness about the dangers of misusing antibiotics remains low in all regions.
"This situation is alarming," the report said, adding that many people continue to believe that antibiotics can be used to fight viral infections, which is not the case.
Even in Europe, where public information campaigns are common, half the population believes viruses can be fought with antibiotics, it found.