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Disease bites back

Heed the warning on antibiotic resistance or pay the price

There was good news this week – the announcement of a potential breakthrough in the search for a malaria vaccine. But there was also bad news: warnings of a new HIV pandemic caused by the emergence of drug-resistant strains of the virus.

The two headlines encapsulate the challenge for medicine: after each advance in the battle against the microbes that threaten humanity, nature succeeds in opening a new front. We are never more than one step ahead.

Last month, Public Health England issued one of its starkest warnings about the global crisis in antibiotics. In the same week, the World Health Organisation issued its first global assessment of antibiotic resistance, warning it is now a “major threat to public health”. The rapidly evolving resistance detailed in these reports is turning common infections into untreatable diseases. The world is entering an era where a child’s scratched knee could kill, where patients entering hospital gamble with their lives.

This week Professor Jeremy Farrar, head of the Wellcome Trust, and Professor Mark Woolhouse of the University of Edinburgh called in the journal Nature for the establishment of a global organisation similar to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to co-ordinate a worldwide response to the growing threat from antimicrobial resistance.

We have heard such demands for 20 years and they have been ignored. If we do not heed them this time, it may be too late.