Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

The Medical Research Council and the Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics (Find) is expected to sign a memorandum of understanding on antibiotic resistance on Tuesday, in an effort to boost collaboration in combating "superbugs".

Find is a global nonprofit organisation that helps to develop diagnostic tests for poverty-related diseases.

Globally, an estimated 700,000 people die from drug-resistant strains of common bacterial infections each year. Scientists fear if available antibiotics are not used more judiciously, and new ones developed more rapidly, the world may return to the pre-antibiotic era when an infected scratch or insect bite could prove deadly.

While limited data is available on the situation in SA, what little there is paints a grim picture.

Most common infections are drug resistant... pathogens don't respect borders

About two thirds of tertiary hospital patients with Klebsiella pneumoniae bloodstream infections are resistant to first-line antibiotics, and about a third of hospital patients with bloodstream Escherichia coli have drug-resistant strains," said University of Cape Town infectious disease specialist Marc Mendelson, citing data collated by the National Institutes of Communicable Diseases (NICD).

"The bottom line is there are very high rates of antibiotic resistance in SA," he said. The Department of Health had recently stepped up its surveillance of antibiotic resistance, which has historically focused on public tertiary hospitals, to include private sector facilities, said Mendelson, who chairs the ministerial advisory committee on antibiotic stewardship. "We are also increasing surveillance of animal antibiotic resistance."

Antibiotic resistance is fuelled by inappropriate use, which can be attributed in part to the limitations of the diagnostic tools available. Ideally healthcare practitioners should have tests that enable them to quickly determine whether a patient is infected with a bacterial or viral infection and which antibiotics a specific strain of bacteria is susceptible to, said Mendelson.

The World Health Organisation’s (WHO’s) new Global Antimicrobial Surveillance System (Glass), released yesterday, shows there is widespread antibiotic resistance in the 22 countries that participated.

The most commonly reported resistant bacteria were E coli, K pneumoniae, Staphylococcus aureus, Streptococcus pneumoniae, and Salmonella. The system does not include data on drug-resistant tuberculosis, which is tracked separately.

Resistance to penicillin — used for decades to treat pneumonia – ranged from 0 to 51% among reporting countries. From 8% to 65% of E coli associated with urinary tract infections were resistant to ciprofloxacin, an antibiotic widely used to treat the condition.

"Some of the world’s most common – and potentially most dangerous – infections are proving drug-resistant. Most worrying of all, pathogens don’t respect national borders. That’s why WHO is encouraging all countries to set up good surveillance systems for detecting drug resistance that can provide data to this global system." said Marc Sprenger, head of WHO’s antimicrobial resistance secretariat.

"The report is a vital first step towards improving our understanding of the extent of antimicrobial resistance. Surveillance is in its infancy, but it is vital to develop it if we are to anticipate and tackle one of the biggest threats to global public health," said Carmem Pessoa-Silva, who co-ordinates the new surveillance system at WHO.

SA is one of 22 countries that contributed to the Glass report, with data collected by the national antimicrobial surveillance network, which is co-ordinated by the NICD.