That drug-resistant blood-poisoning cases in Britain have risen by 30 per cent in less than five years is concerning enough. That the official analysis judges the soaring cases of untreatable E.coli to be just the "tip of the iceberg" of antibiotic resistance should be a spur to more concerted efforts to address the problem.
The implications are dire indeed. If bacteria can no longer be controlled by antibiotics, then common infections that are now largely harmless may become deadly diseases. But if the consequences of drug-resistant bugs are daunting, avoiding them is hardly less so.
A central issue is overuse. Although antibiotics only work against bacteriological infections, all too often patients demand them – and doctors obligingly prescribe them – for coughs, colds and other viruses. In Britain, there have been attempts to limit over-prescription, albeit without much success. Elsewhere, particularly in developing countries, where drugs are sold over the counter, controlling usage is a greater challenge still. Add their ballooning use in agriculture, to promote growth in chickens for example, and it is not difficult to see how obsolescence rates are being accelerated.
That is not all. While overuse is shortening the lifespan of the antibiotics we already have, efforts to develop newer versions have all but ground to a halt. The combination of eye-watering research costs, and the limited profitability of any drug only taken in short bursts, leaves even the largest commercial drug companies unable to afford to develop new antibiotics. The result is a growing gap in our medical arsenal.
Altogether, the outlook is far from reassuring. Although there have been some efforts to get to grips with drug resistance – from the World Health Organisation and from individual governments, including our own – all the evidence suggests the trend is gathering pace.
Experts describe the problem as the health equivalent of climate change: potentially catastrophic and requiring a co-ordinated global response. Like climate change, it cannot be ignored. More must be done to control usage; more must be done to fund research into alternatives.