1. Antibiotics: End of the line
Antibiotics are important medicines that have been used to treat bacterial infections for 70 years. They work by either disrupting processes bacteria need to survive or preventing them from reproducing.
But these drugs are becoming less and less effective against bacterial infections and could one day run out. Right now there aren’t any alternatives that could take their place.
It’s conceivable that in 20 years, treatments such as chemotherapy and simple surgery will become impossible because they rely on antibiotics. We are facing a future where a cough or cut could kill once again.
3. We make the problem worse
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Our actions speed up antibiotic resistance in bacteria, especially in the areas of farming and healthcare. Resistance tends to develop where bacteria are frequently exposed to antibiotics and when there are lots of animal or human hosts. Resistant bacteria can spread from farms and hospitals to the public both directly and indirectly, via the water supply. People then pass the bacteria between themselves, by coughing or contact with unwashed hands.
4. The drugs are running out
Pharmaceutical research hasn't kept up with the growing resistance of bacteria to antibiotics. No new types (classes) of antibiotics have been discovered for 25 years and some strains of bacteria now are unharmed by nearly all the drugs designed to kill them, making infections by these bacteria almost untreatable. Experts have warned we are decades behind in the race against the superbugs. We've already exploited the most obvious naturally occurring antibiotics. So creating new ones requires much more time and ingenuity, but currently there is little financial incentive to do so. Pharmaceutical companies target chronic illnesses to maximise potential profits from new drugs.
5. Tackling the problem today
Superbugs are now a major global health threat with multi-drug resistant bacteria causing around 400,000 infections and 25,000 deaths in Europe every year.
Although better monitoring and hygiene has reduced levels of life-threatening MRSA and C. difficile in UK hospitals, other resistant strains of bacteria are now on the rise. Cases of E. coli and Klebsiella have increased by two-thirds in recent years, making them the most frequent cause of hospital-acquired infection in Britain.
In 2013, the Department of Health responded to the crisis by launching a five-year Antimicrobial Resistance Strategy. This is working to:
Understand antibiotic resistance
More molecular data is being collected on how bacteria become resistant to drugs to understand how the trait evolves and spreads. Sharing the data locally, nationally and globally will help all researchers in this field.
Conserve our existing drugs
Hospitals are preventing bacterial infections by improving hygiene practice. Health workers are being taught about the problem of antibiotic resistance and doctors are being encouraged not to over-prescribe antibiotics.
Encourage new therapies
Could the development of new antibiotics be encouraged by the government? By simplifying how they are licensed and providing financial incentives, more drugs could be discovered.
6. Future solutions for winning the war
How can we beat the rise of superbug resistance? Explore four of the possible solutions.