WHO says these 12 deadly superbugs pose the greatest health threats to humans

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The World Health Organization has released its first list of the world's most dangerous superbugs — 12 families of bacterial supervillains considered the most serious threats to human health. Pictured is Acinetobacter baumannii, which is in the critical category and can cause lung, blood and brain infections. Photo Courtesy:-ALAMY

For the first time ever, the World Health Organization (WHO) has published a list of the world’s most dangerous and deadly superbugs or (antibiotic-resistant “priority pathogens”) on Monday, detailing 12 families of bacterial supervillain that pose the greatest threat to human health and kill millions of people every year.

The list, created by a group of international experts led by the WHO and the University of Tübingen in Germany. With this list, the U.N. health agency is again raising the alarm over the growing health threat created by the gram-negative bacteria that are resistant to key antibiotic drugs. And that is making health care more complicated, as medical professionals are forced to try one drug after another to treat hospital-acquired infections.

In a press briefing on Monday, the U.N. health agency has urged scientists, governments and pharmaceutical industries to create new drugs to tackle 12 antibiotics-resistant supergerms, including salmonella and Staphylococcus aureus, threatening an explosion of incurable disease. The list is also intended to help guide and promote research and development (R&D) of new drugs by the pharmaceutical industry, as part of WHO’s efforts to address evolving global resistance to antimicrobial medicines.

“This list is a new tool to ensure R&D responds to urgent public health needs,” says Dr Marie-Paule Kieny, WHO’s Assistant Director-General for Health Systems and Innovation. “Antibiotic resistance is growing, and we are fast running out of treatment options. If we leave it to market forces alone, the new antibiotics we most urgently need are not going to be developed in time.”

For years, medical professionals have warned that the looming threat of bacteria resistant to antibiotic-drugs could result in a full-scale global crisis with millions of deaths. Globally, antibiotic resistance has been seen in every country, according to WHO, and according to the Review on Antimicrobial Resistance that was commissioned by the British government, about 700,000 people around the world die annually due to multidrug-resistant infections. And if the phenomenon can’t be halted, the experts predict that such infections will kill 10 million people annually by 2050 (more than cancer kills today).

The WHO list is divided into three categories according to the urgency of need for new antibiotics: critical, high and medium priority. Many belong to a class called gram-negative bacteria which have evolved to fight off multiple types of antibiotics.

At the top of the “critical” category are three families of bacteria— Acinetobacter baumannii and Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which can cause deadly bloodstream infections and pneumonia, most commonly spread mainly in hospitals among transplant recipients, chemotherapy patients and people in intensive care. And the third on the list, carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae, is a family of germs that include Salmonella and E. coli bacteria. They also commonly originate in hospitals, and can lead to bloodstream infections, urinary tract infections and pneumonia with high mortality rates. In January, an American woman died of an infection, resistant to all the available antibiotic-drugs, caused by a germ called Enterobacteriaceae, which is on the U.N. health agency’s critical list.

The “high” and “medium” priority categories include drug-resistant bacteria that cause “more common” diseases such as gonorrhoea and salmonella-induced food poisoning which hit poor countries particularly hard, said the WHO.

Some bacteria were not included in the list. The WHO said there was already dedicated programmes working on drug-resistant tuberculosis. Other bacteria, including streptococcus A and B and chlamydia, were also omitted because they do not currently pose a significant public health threat.

The full list of critical and high-priority deadly superbugs is below:

WHO’s list of “priority pathogens”: –

Priority 1: Critical

1. Acinetobacter baumannii, carbapenem-resistant: – These bacteria are highly-resistant to an important class of antibiotics, called carbapenems, used to treat multi drug-resistant bacteria Acinetobacter baumannii causes a range of infections.

Acinetobacter baumannii is in the critical category. Image Courtesy:- CDC/ Dr. Todd Parker.

2. Pseudomonas aeruginosa, carbapenem-resistant: – These bacteria are also resistant to carbapenems. In healthy people, they typically cause ear infections and skin rashes, but in hospitalized patients can result in deadly bloodstream infections and pneumonia.

Pseudomonas aeruginosa is one of three strains deemed to be of “critical” priority. The bug can cause pneumonia, urinary tract infections and bacteremia. Photo Courtesy:- ALAMY

3. Enterobacteriaceae, carbapenem-resistant, ESBL-producing: – Included in this family are familiar Salmonella and E. coli bacteria. These bugs have evolved resistance to carbepenems as well as another class of antibiotics, cephalosporins.

The third “critical” priority bug is Enterobacteriaceae, which can cause diarrhoea and dysentery. Photo Courtesy:- ALAMY

Priority 2: High

4. Enterococcus faecium, vancomycin-resistant: – These bacteria show up frequently in hospital settings, resulting in things like urinary tract infections, surgical wound infections and endocarditis. They are resistant to a common antibiotic called vancomycin.

Enterococcus faecium is one of six strains classified as “high” priority by WHO. It can cause meningitis, endocarditis (an infection of the heart muscle) and UTIs. Photo Courtesy:- ALAMY

5. Staphylococcus aureus, methicillin-resistant, vancomycin-intermediate and resistant: – The staph infection is a common cause of food poisoning, skin infections and respiratory infections. It is resistant to methicillin, an antibiotic in the penicillin class. It’s also growing resistant to vancomycin.

Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, is a common bug that can cause meningitis, toxic shock syndrome, sepsis and pnuemonia, among other deadly infections. WHO have deemed it a “high” priority strain to concentrate efforts on. Photo Courtesy:- ALAMY

6. Helicobacter pylori, clarithromycin-resistant: – These bacteria, which reside in the digestive tract, can cause gastric ulcers and are recognized as a bacterial carcinogen. They are resistant to clarithromycin, a common drug used to treat strep throat, ulcers, skin infections and pneumonia.

Helicobacter pylori is another of the “high” priority strains, that can cause nasty stomach ulcers and has been linked to stomach cancer.Photo Courtesy:- ALAMY

7. Campylobacter spp., fluoroquinolone-resistant: – A common food-borne pathogen, these bacteria are considered to be the most common bacterial cause of the stomach flu and other diarrheal diseases. They are resistant to an important class of drugs called fluoroquinolone.

Campylobacter is one of the most common bacterial infections in humans, and is often food borne. WHO have deemed it another “high” risk strain. Photo Courtesy:- ALAMY

8. Salmonellae, fluoroquinolone-resistant: – Strains of salmonella are responsible for things like typhoid fever and food poisoning. These bacteria are also resistant to fluoroquinolone.

Common food poisoning bug, salomnellae has been classified a “high” priority by WHO. Photo Courtesy:- ALAMY

9. Neisseria gonorrhoeae, cephalosporin-resistant, fluoroquinolone-resistant: – This is the bacterium responsible for gonorrhea. It can also cause other nasty things, like conjunctivitis and meningitis. It’s resistant to both cephalosporin and fluoroquinolone.

Neisseria gonorrhoeae is the bacteria responsible for the sexually transmitted infection gonorrhoea, and is also deemed “high” priority by WHO. Photo Courtesy:- ALAMY

Priority 3: Medium

10. Streptococcus pneumoniae, penicillin-non-susceptible: – This common superbug causes things like meningitis, pneumonia, ear infections and is the leading cause of vaccine-preventable illness. It is growing increasingly resistant to penicillin.

Streptococcus pneumoniae, classified a “medium” risk by WHO can cause bacterial meningitis, peritonitis, endocarditis and other killer bugs. Photo Courtesy:- ALAMY

11. Haemophilus influenzae, ampicillin-resistant: – Commonly known as the “bacterial flu,” this bacteria causes things like pneumonia and ear infections in babies and young kids. A vaccine works on some strains, but not all of them. It is resistant to ampicillin.

Haemophilus influenzae can cause pneumonia, meningitis, septic arthritis, cellulitis as well as other life-threatening conditions. Photo Courtesy:- ALAMY

12. Shigella spp., fluoroquinolone-resistant: – Not to be confused with the shingles, this food-borne pathogen results in dysentery. It is resistant to fluoroquinolone.

Shigella is an intestinal disease that causes diarrhoea, which is often bloody. The bacteria is one of three classified a “medium” priority by WHO. Photo Courtesy:- ALAMY