The world is entering an era where injuries as common as a child's scratched knee could kill, where patients entering hospital gamble with their lives, and where routine operations such as a hip replacement become too dangerous to carry out, the head of the World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned.
There is a global crisis in antibiotics caused by rapidly evolving resistance among microbes responsible for common infections that threaten to turn them into untreatable diseases, said Margaret Chan, director general of the WHO.
Addressing a meeting of infectious disease experts in Copenhagen, she said that every antibiotic ever developed was at risk of becoming useless: "A post-antibiotic era means, in effect, an end to modern medicine as we know it. Things as common as strep throat or a child's scratched knee could once again kill. For patients infected with some drug-resistant pathogens, mortality has been shown to increase by around 50 per cent.
"Some sophisticated interventions, like hip replacements, organ transplants, cancer chemotherapy, and care of pre-term infants, would become far more difficult or even too dangerous to undertake."
Britain has seen a 30 per cent rise in cases of blood poisoning caused by E. coli bacteria between 2005 and 2009, from 18,000 to more than 25,000 cases. Those resistant to antibiotics have risen from 1 per cent at the beginning of the century to 10 per cent.
The most powerful antibiotics are carbapenems, used as a last line of defence for the treatment of resistant infections. In 2009, carbapenem-resistant K. pneumoniae, a bug present in the gut, was detected in Greece and has now spread to Italy, Austria, Cyprus and Hungary.
Margaret Chan wants action to restrict the use of antibiotics in food production and a crackdown on counterfeit medicines. "Worldwide, the fact that greater quantities of antibiotics are used in healthy animals than in unhealthy humans is a cause for great concern," she said. Discovering new medicines to treat resistant superbugs has proved increasingly difficult.
She called for measures to tackle the threat: doctors prescribing antibiotics appropriately, patients following their treatment, and restrictions on the use of antibiotics in animals.