The world faces a future without cures for infection, in which even a minor injury or a routine operation could prove fatal, the Chief Medical Officer has warned.
Professor Dame Sally Davies said rapidly evolving resistance to antibiotics among bacteria is one of the greatest threats to modern health. “Antibiotics are losing their effectiveness at a rate that is both alarming and irreversible – similar to global warming,” she said. “Bacteria are adapting and finding ways to survive the effects of antibiotics, ultimately becoming resistant so they no longer work.”
The warning comes six months after a similar call by Margaret Chan, head of the World Health Organisation, who said the world faced the “end of modern medicine as we know it” as a result of the “global crisis in antibiotics”.
An estimated 25,000 people die each year in the European Union from antibiotic resistant bacterial infections.
Britain has seen a sharp rise in cases of blood poisoning caused by E.coli since 2005 and those resistant to antibiotics have increased from 1 per cent a decade ago to 10 per cent.
A recent study suggested deaths could double in patients with multi-drug resistant E.coli, according to the Department of Health.
The European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention says today that there has been a “significant increasing trend” of resistance to multiple antibiotics, including carbapenems – the last line of defence for the treatment of resistant infections. Carbapenem-resistant bugs were first detected in Greece in 2009 but have since spread across Europe and consumption of the antibiotics is increasing.
“For patients infected with [resistant] bacteria, few last line antibiotics, like carbapenems, remain available,” said Marc Sprenger, director of the ECDC. Speaking ahead of Antibiotic Awareness Day on Sunday, Professor Davies said urgent action is needed in the UK, across Europe and the rest of the world to ensure antibiotics are used “in the right way, at the right dose and the right time” to slow the development of antibiotic resistance.
Developing new antibiotics to treat resistant superbugs has proved increasingly difficult and costly with limited commercial returns as they are taken only for a short period. The pipeline of new drugs is almost dry.
Dr Cliodna McNulty, of the UK Health Protection Agency, urged patients not to expect antibiotics for minor infections such as coughs and colds: “GP patients who have had antibiotics in the last 6 months are twice as likely to have an infection with resistant bacteria. This is why it is very important that we preserve the antibiotics that we have by not prescribing them where they are not necessary so that they are effective when we really do need them.”
The Department of Health said an untreatable form of gonorrhoea, the sexually transmitted disease which infects more than 100 million people globally, was spreading across the world and had been detected in Britain. The WHO warned last June that millions of patients could run out of treatment options if resistant gonorrhoea spread. Almost 21,000 cases of gonorrhoea were reported in the UK in 2011, a 25 per cent rise on 2010.