WHO takes aim at superbug threat, tells providers to cut back use of some antibiotics

In the latest update to its Essential Medicines List, the World Health Organization made the biggest change to its antibiotics section in 40 years, an effort aimed at combating drug-resistant superbugs.

The Essential Medicines List, which was first compiled in 1977, offers guidance on decisions about access to certain medications. In its latest version, the WHO grouped antibiotics into three categories with recommendations on appropriate uses.

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The “access” group includes common, front-line antibiotics like amoxicillin that are used for a variety of common infections, and which should continue to be go-to treatment options. Medications in the “watch” group are often first- or second-choice treatments for certain infections, but the WHO recommends their use be reduced; for instance, providers should cut back on ciprofloxacin, which is prescribed to treat urinary tract infections and upper respiratory tract infections.

The final group, “reserve,” includes medications that should only be used as a last-resort option, to treat an infection, for example, with multiple drug resistances. This includes colistin and cephalosporins.

“The rise in antibiotic resistance stems from how we are using—and misusing—these medicines," Suzanne Hill, Ph.D., WHO’s director of essential medicines and health products, said in an announcement.

"The new WHO list should help health system planners and prescribers ensure people who need antibiotics have access to them, and ensure they get the right one, so that the problem of resistance doesn’t get worse."

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WHO has put a spotlight on the issue of antibiotic resistance in recent months, as it also released a list of pathogens that are the most dangerous for human health in an effort to drive more research into alternative antibiotics. Researchers have suggested that antibiotic-resistant bacteria could kill more people than cancer, and more providers are practicing antibiotic stewardship as a solution.

Antibiotic stewardship programs reduce unneeded infections and prescriptions, and a number of industry groups, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, offer guidelines for how providers can implement a stewardship program.