Britain is facing a "massive" rise in antibiotic-resistant blood poisoning caused by the bacterium E.coli – bringing closer the spectre of diseases that are impossible to treat.
Experts say the growth of antibiotic resistance now poses as great a threat to global health as the emergence of new diseases such as Aids and pandemic flu. Professor Peter Hawkey, a clinical microbiologist and chair of the Government's antibiotic-resistance working group, said that antibiotic resistance had become medicine's equivalent of climate change.
The "slow but insidious growth" of resistant organisms was threatening to turn common infections into untreatable diseases, he said. Already, an estimated 25,000 people die each year in the European Union from antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections.
"It is a worldwide issue – there are no boundaries," he said.
"We have very good policies on the use of antibiotics in man and in animals in the UK. But we are not alone. We have to think globally."
Between 2005 and 2009, the incidence of E.coli "bacteraemias" [the presence of bacteria in the blood] rose by 30 per cent, from 18,000 to over 25,000 cases. Those resistant to antibiotics have risen from 1 per cent at the beginning of the century to 10 per cent.
"Only one in 20 of infections with [resistant] E. coli is a bacteraemia, so the above data are only the tip of an iceberg of infected individuals," says a report produced by Professor Hawkey's group, commissioned by the Department of Health and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
Professor Dame Sally Davies, the Government's chief medical officer, has pledged £500,000 to fund research into the threat.
Drug companies have lost interest in developing new antibiotics because it is increasingly difficult to find new agents and it is not commercially viable – antibiotics are taken for a few days, compared with, say, a heart drug which may be taken for life.
"There are only so many antibiotics available and as we lose them it becomes more and more difficult to replace them," said Professor Hawkey.
The rapid rise in E.coli blood poisoning is thought to be linked with the ageing of the population. E.coli is a common cause of urinary-tract infections but may also cause wound infections following surgery or injury. These are regarded as minor conditions, but if they became untreatable they would be life-threatening.
E.coli infections pose a much bigger problem than MRSA because the bacterium is more common. Only one in 10 people are carriers of MRSA, but E.coli is present in everyone.