Welcome statement at World Health Day Seminar on the containment and prevention of antibiotic resistance

Moscow, Russian Federation, 7 April 2011

Statement by Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe

Ladies and gentlemen,

Today, we celebrate World Health Day, as the WHO Constitution went into force on 7 April 1948 with the approval of 61 countries based on the fundamental basic principles of happiness, harmonious relations and security for all peoples. Every year we use this day to highlight a different public health topic.

This year's topic is a really urgent one. The posters say it all: no action today, no cure tomorrow. Today, antimicrobial resistance is a problem worldwide, including in countries in the European Region, and one country alone cannot solve the problem. If we do not intervene now, antimicrobial resistance can endanger all our efforts to control malaria, HIV, tuberculosis and many other bacterial infections. WHO calls for concerted action to halt the spread of drug resistance. In the WHO European Region, we focus our attention on antibiotic resistance to bacteria, what causes it and how it spreads.

Already 70 years ago, Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin, warned that using antibiotic drugs would create resistance. Since 1928, after penicillin was discovered and especially after 1940, when it began to be marketed in large quantities, resistance occurred. Many new antibiotics have been developed because of this, and they have all faced the same process, with the bacteria the antibiotics are supposed to kill becoming resistant.

Too often and in too many places, we see the overuse and misuse of antibiotics, as they may be bought over the counter without a prescription. Many people believe that antibiotics should be used to treat any infection, not knowing that antibiotics are only effective against bacterial infections. Antibiotics are also overused in animal feed in many places. Resistant bacteria or genes spread from animals to people and between countries. We live in an era in which we depend on antibiotics and other antimicrobial medicines to treat conditions that would have proved fatal decades ago.

Every year, in the European Union an estimated 25 000 people die as a result of a serious resistant bacterial infection, most of them acquired in hospitals. The overall number of deaths in the European Region is not known, but in the European countries outside the European Union the figures are probably similar or even higher.

Antibiotic resistance increases health care costs because of longer duration of illness and more complex and costly treatment, and it burdens families and societies with additional costs. The estimated total cost to society of antibiotic resistance in the European Union alone is estimated to be €1.5 billion. As income increases in countries, more antibiotics are prescribed and used, creating more opportunities for resistant bacteria to flourish.

Bacterial resistance to tuberculosis drugs is also a major concern, and many countries in Eastern Europe are among the countries with a high burden of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis.

There are very few new antibiotics in development and on the pharmaceutical market. If we do not act today, there may be a time when no cure against some bacterial infections exists any more. Everyone should be aware of this risk.