11 Mar 2013

Warning issued over superbug threat

Superbugs which have become resistant to our most powerful antibiotics represent a “catastrophic threat” to society, a report launched today by the government’s top doctor says.

The Chief Medical Officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, called for global action to halt the threat of antibiotic resistance. “If we don’t act now, any one of us could go into hospital in 20 years for minor surgery and die because of an ordinary infection that can’t be treated by antibiotics,” she said.

She called for the issue of drug resistant bacteria to be added to the national risk register – a catalogue of the most serious type of civil emergencies maintained by the Cabinet Office that includes terror attacks and catastrophic flooding.

In recent years a number of worrying new infections resistant to all, or nearly all the strongest antibiotics, have emerged. They include virtually untreatable forms of tuberculosis (pictured, above)and strains of the sexually transmitted infection Gonorrhoea (pictured, below) that no longer respond to oral antibiotics.

One of the most worrysome new superbugs are pneumonia causing strains of Klebsiella that can only be eradicated with older, quite toxic, forms of antibiotics to which they have not yet developed resistance.

There are strains of sexually transmitted infection Gonorrhoea that no longer respond to oral antibiotics (picture: Getty)

The report calls for improved surveillance across the NHS for hard-to-treat bacteria. Successes with cutting other superbug infections like MRSA should be replicated across the health service to prevent new resistant bacteria emerging.

It also calls for more cooperation with the pharmaceutical industry to fill the “discovery void” preventing the development of new generation of drugs.

“We need to encourage more innovation in the development of antibiotics – over the past two decades there has been a discovery void around antibiotics, meaning diseases have evolved faster than the drugs to treat them,” said Prof Davies.

‘Dedicated funding’

Scientists who are concerned about the rise of new superbugs welcomed the report, but warned a “call for action” is not enough to make the problem go away.

“We need to start filling the discovery void now,” said Professor Laura Piddock a microbiologist at the University of Birmingham. “That means the government must provide dedicated funding for antibiotic drug discovery and research.”

Because the rise of superbugs is a global one, work on new drugs in the UK could help the economy, not just save lives, according to Prof Piddock. “If there was innovation across the board, the UK could really lead in this,” she said.

A spokesman for the Department of Health said there was currently no new money for superbug research but that a five-year UK Antimicrobial Resistance Strategy Plan, due within weeks, would respond to the CMO’s call for action.

Read more health stories from Channel 4 News