Excessive use of antibiotics and other antimicrobial drugs during coronavirus epidemics is helping to build up resistance to bacteria that will over time make these important drugs ineffective, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) warned Wednesday.
Several U.S. countries, including Argentina, Uruguay, Ecuador, Guatemala and Paraguay, are reporting an increase in the detection of drug-resistant infections that may have contributed to an increase in mortality in hospitalized COVID-19 patients, the health agency said.
“We’ve seen an unprecedented increase in antimicrobial use, with potentially serious consequences,” said PAHO Director Carissa Etienne. “We run the risk of losing the drugs we rely on to treat common infections,” he said in a webcast news briefing.
Antimicrobials are being misused outside hospital settings and drugs such as ivermectin and chloroquine are being used as unproven treatments, even with strong evidence that they do not benefit COVID-19 patients, he said.
The use of ivermectin and chloroquine has been actively encouraged by some authorities in the region, such as Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro.
Hospital data from the region show that 90% to 100% of hospitalized COVID-19 patients were given an antimicrobial as part of their treatment, while only 7% of them had a secondary infection that required the use of these drugs, Etin said.
Antibiotic abuse and overuse have long been seen as a potential threat that could lead to the emergence of so-called superbugs with resistance to existing treatments, a problem exacerbated by the epidemic.
“Throughout the epidemic we have acknowledged the power of antimicrobials,” he said, adding that it could take months or years for the full effects of their abuse and overuse to become apparent.
Pharmaceutical companies have a few new antibiotics in their pipeline because they need to be limited in their use in order to be much less profitable and effective than other drugs.
“As we have been able to channel our combined ability to diagnose COVID and develop vaccines in record time, we need commitment and cooperation to develop new and affordable antimicrobials,” Etienne said.
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