Top Medical Adviser Warns That Superbugs Will Drag Health Service Back To Early 19th Century
A senior medical adviser has warned that drug-resistant superbugs will likely drag health services back to the early 19th century unless urgent action is taken.
The ‘ticking timebomb’ of growing antibiotic resistance could leave millions vulnerable to untreatable bugs within a generation.
Constant exposure to antibiotics can cause bacteria to tolerate it better and become more and more resistant in the long-term. This increased level of resistance can also be accompanied by an increased (bacterial) growth rates.
Its could make even routine operations such as hip surgery deadly, said Chief Medical Officer Professor Dame Sally Davies.
In an attempt to tackle the problem, doctors may eventually be required to prescribe fewer antibiotics.
While infections are becoming increasingly difficult to beat, no new class of antibiotic has been discovered since 1987. In contrast, a new infection emerges on an almost yearly basis.
Dame Sally said the ‘catastrophic threat’ from infections resistant to frontline antibiotics is so serious that she has asked the Government to put antibiotic resistance on the national risk register -- ranking it alongside a large-scale terrorist attack or flu pandemic.
Bacteria that develop resistance to an antibiotic or other antibacterial agent generally grow more slowly than bacteria that are sensitive to the agent. From a public-health standpoint, this used to be beneficial because when the antibacterial agent was not present, the drug-sensitive strain would grow to dominate the drug-resistant strain. But new research suggests that bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics continue to persist, even thrive, whether antibiotics are present or not.
"The best way to prevent these resistant infections from spreading is to be careful about how we use antibiotics," said Dr. Cynthia Whitney, chief of respiratory diseases at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"It is very worrying," said Dr. Keith Klugman, an infectious diseases specialist at Emory University. New strains continue to spread despite the use of vaccinations. Dozens of strep strains exist, and some have flourished and become impervious to antibiotics and pneumococcal vaccines.
‘That is one way of getting central and cross-government action internationally,’ she said. ‘It should be [on the register] because this is a growing problem. And if we don’t get it right, we will find ourselves in a health system not dissimilar to the early 19th century at some point.
‘If we don’t act now, any one of us could go into hospital in 20 years for minor surgery and die because of an ordinary infection that can’t be treated by antibiotics. And routine operations like hip replacements or organ transplants could be deadly because of the risk of infection.’
Acknowledging that ‘global action’ must be taken, she said: ‘This is an international threat.’
In the past five years, the number of cases of blood poisoning from antimicrobial resistant (AMR) forms of E. coli -- which is twice as fatal as the normal bug -- has gone up 60 per cent.
The drug-resistant gut bug alone, which is picked up in hospital in half of cases, could be responsible for up to thousands of deaths -- more than MRSA and C. difficile combined.
Figures from the Health Protection Agency (HPA) show that instances of ‘multidrug resistant’ tuberculosis were 81 in 2011, up from just 28 in 2000, with around half of the patients dying.
Another worrying trend is the rise in infections resistant to powerful antibiotics called carbapenems, the last line of treatment to tackle the most serious infections.
Figures from the HPA show samples testing positive for resistance to the drug have gone up more than 250-fold in the past decade, from three in 2003 to 800 in 2012.
Current findings on Manuka Honey are likely to have a major impact on modern medicine and could lead to a range of honey-based products to replace antibiotic and antiseptic creams.
"Most bacteria that cause infections in hospitals are resistant to at least one antibiotic, and there is an urgent need for new ways to treat and control surface infections," Professor Carter said.
"New antibiotics tend to have short shelf lives, as the bacteria they attack quickly become resistant. Many large pharmaceutical companies have abandoned antibiotic production because of the difficulty of recovering costs. Developing effective alternatives could therefore save many lives."
None of the bacteria researchers have used to test the honey, including superbugs such as flesh-eating bacteria, built up any immunity.
She said a compound in the honey called methylglyoxal -- toxic on its own -- combined in unknown ways with other unidentified compounds in the honey to cause "multi-system failure" in the bacteria.
Marco Torres is a research specialist, writer and consumer advocate for healthy lifestyles. He holds degrees in Public Health and Environmental Science and is a professional speaker on topics such as disease prevention, environmental toxins and health policy.