Meds and you

Updated 28 June 2018

How does drug resistance happen?

The World Health Organization warns that antimicrobial resistance will kill millions if no action is taken – but how does it develop?

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is threatening populations around the world, simply because bacteria are evolving at such a rate that they essentially become unaffected by the medications meant to kill them.

It's estimated that about 700 000 people die annually from drug-resistant strains of illnesses, such as bacterial infections, tuberculosis and malaria. 

Economist Jim O'Neill conducted a review of AMR, and experts warned that if nothing is done about the problem, 10 million people around the world will die by 2050.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has developed a global action plan to take on AMR. They have increased awareness around the problem and are encouraging healthcare professionals to take extra care with antimicrobial medication, and not to prescribe medication unnecessarily.

AMR can happen in two ways:

  • When medication doesn't kill all bacteria in infected people, it allows the bacteria to grow and evolve, resulting in resistance.
  • When people are infected with a strain which has already grown and evolved to resist antimicrobial drugs.

In cases where bacteria grow and evolve, antimicrobial medication kills off sensitive bacteria, but doesn't kill off all bacteria. This results in the bacteria mutating and multiplying to replace the sensitive bacteria, which the medication initially killed off.

During a summit held earlier this year, the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) and the Foundation for Innovating New Diagnostics (FIND) presented their findings around AMR and how health systems that are under strain require urgent intervention. Delegates at the meeting also said that these health systems need innovations which are sustainable, affordable and can be taken to scale.