Updating essential drugs list, UN health agency aims to preserve potency of 'last resort' antibiotics

Photo: WHO/Jim Holmes

6 June 2017 – As part of its effort to combat growing drug resistance, the United Nations health agency today announced that it is classifying antibiotics into three categories and providing new advice on which to use for common infections and which to preserve for the most serious circumstances.

According to a news release issued by the agency, a key revision in this year's update was the grouping of antibiotic medicines into three categories – Access, Watch and Reserve to enhance treatment outcomes, reduce the development of drug-resistant bacteria, and preserve the effectiveness of “last resort” antibiotics that are needed when all others fail.

Also, 10 antibiotics for adults and 12 for children were also added to the list.

“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,” said Suzanne Hill, the Director of Essential Medicines and Health Products at the UN agency, in a news release in which she also underscored the importance of proper use of these drugs given rising antimicrobial resistance in populations around the globe.

The updates to the antibiotics section are also in support of the UN agency's global action plan on antimicrobial resistance, the news release added.

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is the ability of a microorganism (like bacteria, viruses, and some parasites) to stop an antimicrobial (such as antibiotics, antivirals and antimalarials) from working against it. As a result, standard treatments become ineffective, infections persist and may spread to others.

In addition to the antibiotics, new drugs included in the WHO Essentials Medicines List (EML) contain new medicines, such as two oral cancer treatments, a new pill for hepatitis C (HepC) that combines two medicines, a more effective treatment for HIV as well as an older drug that can be taken to prevent HIV infection in people at high risk, new paediatric formulations of medicines for tuberculosis (TB), and pain relievers.

Further in the release, Marie-Paule Kieny, WHO Assistant Director-General for Health Systems and Innovation also highlighted that safe and effective medicines form an essential part of any health system.

“Making sure all people can access the medicines they need, when and where they need them, is vital to countries' progress towards universal health coverage,” she said.

The WHO list of essential medicines was launched in 1977, coinciding with the endorsement by governments at the World Health Assembly of “Health for all” as the guiding principle for WHO and countries' health policies.

Many countries have adopted the concept of essential medicines and have developed lists of their own, using the EML as a guide. The EML is updated and revised every two years by the WHO Expert Committee on the Selection and Use of Essential Medicines.


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