Antibiotic resistance as serious a threat as terrorism, warns U.K.'s top doctor
Published Thursday, January 24, 2013 11:20AM EST
Last Updated Friday, January 25, 2013 5:01PM EST
England’s chief medical officer is warning that the growing problem of bacteria that have grown resistant to antibiotics should be considered a crisis that demands immediate action.
Speaking to members of Parliament at a science and technology committee meeting Wednesday, Prof. Dame Sally Davies said bacteria are learning how to resist our current antibiotics and there are few new drugs in the pipeline to replace them.
She warned that in 20 years, a simple infection following a routine surgery could become fatal because doctors will not have the antibiotics to treat it.
“Antibiotics are losing their effectiveness at a rate that is both alarming and irreversible – similar to global warming,” she told the legislators.
"… It is clear that we might not ever see global warming. The apocalyptic scenario is that when I need a new hip in 20 years, I'll die from a routine infection because we've run out of antibiotics.”
Davies said the threat from antibiotic resistance was so serious, the issue should be added to the British government’s national risk register of civil emergencies.
The register was established in 2008 to advise the public and businesses about national emergencies that Britain could face in the next five years. Currently, the highest priority risks on the register include a flu pandemic and terrorist attacks.
The country’s top doctor said drug resistance should be added to the list.
“There are few public health issues of potentially greater importance for society than antibiotic resistance. It means we are at increasing risk of developing infections that cannot be treated – but resistance can be managed,” she said.
Davies is planning to issue an annual report on infectious disease in March. The publication is expected to coincide with a government strategy to promote more responsible use of antibiotics among doctors.
Davies suggested that part of the reason there are few new antibiotics being developed is that they are considered less profitable than other medicines, and the pharmaceutical industry would rather concentrate on other areas of medicine.
“There is a broken market model for making new antibiotics, so it's an empty pipeline,” she said.
Infectious diseases experts have been warning about the problem of antibiotic resistance for some time.
Researchers reported last summer in The Lancet medical journal that a high number of tuberculosis cases in Asia, Europe, Africa and Latin America are now immune to four powerful antibiotic drugs. And earlier this month, Canadian researchers reported that the last oral antibiotic used to treat gonorrhea has begun to fail to cure many cases.
Hospitals throughout Canada and elsewhere have also struggled to combat outbreaks of infections caused by MRSA and C. difficile superbugs.
The World Health Organization drew attention to the drug resistance problem during 2011’s World Health Day, warning that the world is on the brink of losing the miracle cures of antibiotics.
“Irrational and inappropriate use of antimicrobials is by far the biggest driver of drug resistance,” it said, referring to the over-prescription of antibiotics for illnesses that don’t require them, and “underuse” of antibiotics among patients who can’t afford to pay for a full course of treatment and who create pathogens that “learn” how to adapt to the medicines.