Common infections and minor scratches could soon kill because antibiotics are becoming useless against new superbugs, World Health Organisation warns
A child’s scratched knee from falling off their bike, common bladder infections among the elderly in care homes and routine surgery to replace broken hips could all become fatal as antibiotics are becoming increasingly useless, the World Health Organisation has said.
The crisis is bigger and more urgent than the Aids epidemic of the 1980s, it was warned.
UK experts said the ‘era of safe medicine is coming to an end’ and government funds must be pumped into the production of new drugs.
In the foreword to the report Dr Keiji Fukuda, WHO’s Assistant Director-General for Health Security, wrote: “A post-antibiotic era — in which common infections and minor injuries can kill — far from being an apocalyptic fantasy, is instead a very real possibility for the 21st century.”
He said: “Unless we take significant actions to improve efforts to prevent infections and also change how we produce, prescribe and use antibiotics, the world will lose more and more of these global public health goods and the implications will be devastating.”
He said modern medicine, from the treatment of urinary tract infections and pneumonia in babies to chemotherapy and kidney dialysis are under threat.
“This is not an abstract problem. We have a big problem now and it is going to get bigger.
“What do we do when we have infections we cannot treat or when we lose the ability to protect people when having chemotherapy? I think there are very concrete implications, ” he said.
The report, Antimicrobial resistance: global report on surveillance, focuses on antibiotic resistance in seven different bacteria responsible for common, serious diseases such as sepsis, diarrhoea, pneumonia, urinary tract infections and gonorrhoea.
It is the most comprehensive picture of drug resistance across the globe with data from 114 countries.
It found that antibiotic resistance is present in all areas of the world and is growing.
Over the last 30 years no new types of antibiotics have been developed, the WHO said.
Dr Danilo Lo Fo Wong, Senior Adviser Antimicrobial Resistance at WHO Europe, told the Telegraph: “A child falling off their bike and developing a fatal infection would be a freak occurrence in the UK but that is where we are heading.
“Antibiotic resistance travels with infectious diseases and infectious diseases travel around the world. Whatever good is being done in the UK and elsewhere it can be made redundant by a lack of action elsewhere in the world.”
The report comes after England’s Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davis, said the issue ‘scared’ her and called for greater restriction of antibiotics and incentives for pharmaceutical companies to produce new medicines.
Professor Laura Piddock, Director of Antibiotic Action and Professor of Microbiology at University of Birmingham said: “The world needs to respond as it did to the Aids crisis of the Eighties.
“To do this, we need to be ambitious to succeed – moves such as a fully funded mandatory global surveillance programme will document the size of the problem and funded public education will help minimise use – but these are just starting points. We still need a better understanding of all aspects of resistance as well as new discovery, research and development of new antibiotics.”
She said governments need to pump money into research to develop new drugs and added that UK funding on antibiotic research as dropped to less than one per cent of available research funds.
Dr Lo Fo Wong warned that antibiotic resistance was bigger than the 1980s Aids crisis because “everyone is potentially in danger”.
The report highlighted drug resistance in viral infections also, such as HIV treatments, Tamiflu which is used to combat flu during epidemics and in some fungal infections.
Dr Paul Cosford, Director for Health Protection and Medical Director at Public Health England, said: “Whilst the UK does not have the levels of antibiotic resistance seen in some parts of the world we do see patients with infections resistant to antibiotics and we take these very seriously.
“Combating the development and spread of antibiotic resistance requires a multifaceted approach and PHE is working very closely with its stakeholders to address this. Our work is contributing to the new cross-government national strategy that aims to tackle one of the biggest health care issues of our time.”
Members of the public, health workers and pharmacists, and policymakers could all play a part in fighting the superbugs, said the WHO.
Patients could help by only using antibiotics when they were prescribed by a doctor, making sure they completed the full course of treatment even if feeling better, and never sharing antibiotics or using left over prescriptions.
Health professionals were reminded only to prescribe and dispense antibiotics when they are truly needed and to ensure the right drugs were used for particular infections.
Antibiotic use in food production can be reduced, Dr Fukuda said, and better diagnostic tests need to be used in health care so drugs can be focused on those infections they will be most effective against.
The rise of antibiotic resistance will mean patients will spend longer in hospital, incurring greater costs for health care systems globally, Dr Fukuda said.