Doctors warn of a 'post-antibiotic apocalypse'

The growing threat of antibiotic resistance could lead to a "post-antibiotic apocalypse" if action is not taken, warned England's chief medical officer.

Professor Dame Sally Davies said that if antibiotics lose their effectiveness it will spell "the end of modern medicine".

Without the drugs used to fight infections, common medical interventions such as caesarean sections, cancer treatments and hip replacements would become incredibly "risky", she said.

And transplant medicine would be a "thing of the past", she added.

"We really are facing, if we don't take action now, a dreadful post-antibiotic apocalypse".

"I don't want to say to my children that I didn't do my best to protect them and their children."

Health experts have previously warned that resistance to antimicrobial drugs could cause a bigger threat to mankind than cancer.

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Around 700,000 people around the world die annually due to drug-resistant infections including tuberculosis (TB), HIV and malaria.

If no action is taken, it has been estimated that drug-resistant infections will kill 10 million people a year by 2050.

Dame Sally said that because AMR is "hidden", people "just let it pass".

The comments come as the UK Government and the Wellcome Trust, along with others, have organised a "call to action" meeting for health officials from around the globe.

At the meeting in Berlin, the Government will also announce a new project which will map the spread of death and disease caused by drug-resistant "superbugs".

Dame Sally warned that if the global community did not act then the progress which had been made in Britain to highlight the problem may be "undermined".

Professor Dame Sally Davies warns that action needs to be taken now. Credit: Yui Mok/PA Archive/PA Images

She added: "We use more than I would like and we estimate that about one in three or one in four prescriptions in primary care are probably not needed.

Foreign and international development minister Alistair Burt said the project will help to "pinpoint problem areas".

He said: "The UK is not content to sit back and let this turn into a catastrophe.

"Part of the problem has been a lack of co-ordination of global efforts and an understanding of where we need to target our future efforts.

"The partnership we are announcing today - part of more than £160 million in new research funding in the past year - will help us to pinpoint problem areas.

The new project which will map the spread of superbugs is a collaboration between the UK Government, Wellcome Trust, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the University of Oxford and Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

Professor Colin Garner, chief executive at Antibiotic Research UK, the world's first charity established to tackle antimicrobial resistance, said: "The UK government's involvement in the Global Burden of Disease AMR project is great news as it seeks to gather and publish data on the impact of superbugs globally."

But he warned that "time is not on our side" and said many more changes were needed.

He added: "A UK Antibiotic Resistance Register needs to be created in the same way that we have regional cancer registers, and mechanisms to incentivise R&D from the pharmaceutical industry need to be implemented."

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  • What are antimicrobial drugs?

These are the drugs which destroy harmful microbes. Antibiotics are the best known of these drugs, but there are others, such as antivirals, antimalarial drugs and antifungals.

  • What is antimicrobial resistance?

AMR occurs when micro-organisms such as bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites evolve to resist the drugs that combat the infections that they cause. As a result, standard treatments become ineffective, infections persist and may spread. When the micro-organisms become resistant to antimicrobial drugs they are often referred to as "superbugs".

  • How does this happen?

The World Health Organisation says that antimicrobial resistance occurs naturally over time, usually through genetic changes. But other factors have helped to accelerate the process such as the "misuse and overuse" of antimicrobial drugs. Other factors include poor infection control, inadequate sanitary conditions and inappropriate food-handling.

  • What infections should not be treated with antibiotics?

Viral infections should not be treated with antibiotics. Common infections caused by viruses include colds, flu, some sore throats, most coughs and bronchitis, many sinus infections and many ear infections.