The biggest threat to human health today isn’t global warming, says a group of eminent scientists, it is resistance to antibiotics.
The situation, which has been described as ‘apocalyptic’, is so desperate that a global response, similar to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is urgently needed, said experts gathered at the Royal Society in London.
The World Health Organisation is considering a global action plan to fight the problem.
At least two million Americans a year are infected with drug-resistant bugs and 23,000 die as a direct result. Even more die from other illnesses that were made worse by infections that cannot be treated, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) last year.
Another 5,000 die annually in Britain, where the first antimicrobials were developed a century ago. Dame Sally Davies, Britain’s Chief Medical Officer, warned Parliament last year of an “apocalyptic” situation where people would die from routine operations.
One of the main threats comes from MRSA, Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. A recent study found that 4.6 per cent of patients in US healthcare facilities had the bug.
Antibiotic resistance is not only bad news for current patients, it also allows pathogens to spread to more victims.
Jeremy Farrar, the head of the Wellcome Trust, and Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at Edinburgh University, argued in Nature yesterday that the use of antibiotics should be slashed to slow the rate at which resistance is spreading.
Their proposed new global panel would also work with industry to develop treatments for infections caused by bacteria, viruses and parasites. But it takes a decade to develop new drugs, and no new class of antibiotics has made it into clinical use in a quarter of a century.
“We have needed to take action against the development of antimicrobial resistance for more than 20 years,” said Dr Farrar. “Despite repeated warnings, the international response has been feeble. The more we use antibiotics, the more we stimulate resistance.”
The evolution of resistant strains is inevitable, but misuse of wonder drugs such as penicillin – discovered in 1929 by Sir Alexander Fleming at St Mary’s Hospital, London – has made it much worse.
Many patients stop taking antibiotics when they begin to feel better, before the infection has been completely killed. Because the surviving bugs are likely to be the ones with at least partial resistance, they then spread. Repeated cycles quickly leads to bugs that are immune to our drugs.
Antibiotics are also widely used as a growth promoter for livestock, despite an European Union ban.
Britain introduced a five-year antibiotic plan in 2013 to improve surveillance, educate medical professionals and spread best practice.
But, said Michael Moore of the Royal College of General Practitioners, “The problem of antimicrobial resistance is analogous to global warming. You’ve got to have an international policy,”