Antibiotic resistance: Cameron warns of medical 'dark ages'

  • 2 July 2014
  • From the section Health
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The world could soon be "cast back into the dark ages of medicine" unless action is taken to tackle the growing threat of resistance to antibiotics, Prime Minister David Cameron has said.

He has announced a review into why so few anti-microbial drugs have been introduced in recent years.

Economist Jim O'Neill will lead a panel including experts from science, finance, industry, and global health.

It will set out plans for encouraging the development of new antibiotics.

'Taking the lead'

The prime minister said: "If we fail to act, we are looking at an almost unthinkable scenario where antibiotics no longer work and we are cast back into the dark ages of medicine where treatable infections and injuries will kill once again."

Mr Cameron said he discussed the issue at a G7 leaders meeting in Brussels earlier this month and got specific support from US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

It is hoped that the review panel's proposals will be discussed at next year's G7 summit, which will be hosted by Germany.

"Penicillin was a great British invention by Alexander Fleming back in 1928," Mr Cameron told the BBC. "It's good that Britain is taking the lead on this issue to solve what could otherwise be a really serious global health problem."

He said the panel would analyse three key issues: the increase in drug-resistant strains of bacteria, the "market failure" which has seen no new classes of antibiotics for more than 25 years, and the over-use of antibiotics globally.

'Time bomb'

It is estimated that drug-resistant strains of bacteria are responsible for 5,000 deaths a year in the UK and 25,000 deaths a year in Europe.

bacteria
A resistant strain of bacteria

Chief Medical Officer for England Prof Dame Sally Davies has been a key figure helping to get the issue on the government and global agenda.

Last year she described the threat of antimicrobial resistance as a "ticking time bomb" and said the dangers it posed should be ranked along with terrorism.

She spoke at a meeting of scientists at the Royal Society last month which warned that a response was needed akin to efforts to combat climate change.

Dame Sally said: "I am delighted to see the prime minister taking a global lead by commissioning this review.

"New antibiotics made by the biotech and pharmaceutical industry will be central to resolving this crisis which will impact on all areas of modern medicine."

Antibiotics dates of discovery timeline

Medical research charity the Wellcome Trust is providing £500,000 of funding for Mr O'Neill and his team, which will be based at their headquarters in central London.

Antimicrobial resistance has been a key issue for Jeremy Farrar, since he became director of the Wellcome Trust last year.

"Drug-resistant bacteria, viruses and parasites are driving a global health crisis," he said.

"It threatens not only our ability to treat deadly infections, but almost every aspect of modern medicine: from cancer treatment to Caesarean sections, therapies that save thousands of lives every day rely on antibiotics that could soon be lost."

'Market failure'

Antibiotics have been an incredible success story, but bacteria eventually develop resistance through mutation.

One example is MRSA, which has been a major threat for years in hospitals. It is resistant to all but the most powerful of antibiotics, and the main weapon against it is improved hygiene, which cuts the opportunity for infection to spread.

Without antibiotics a whole raft of surgical procedures would be imperilled, from hip replacements to cancer chemotherapy and organ transplants.

Before antibiotics, many women died after childbirth after developing a simple bacterial infection.

Mr O'Neill is a high-profile economist who is best-known for coining the terms Bric and Mint - acronyms to describe countries which are emerging and potential powerhouses of the world economy.

He is not, though an expert on antibiotics or microbes. But Mr Cameron told the BBC it was important to have an economist heading the review:

"There is a market failure; the pharmaceutical industry hasn't been developing new classes of antibiotics, so we need to create incentives."

Jeremy Farrar said: "This is not just a scientific and medical challenge, but an economic and social one too which would require analysis of regulatory systems and behavioural changes to solve them."

Mr O'Neill will begin work in September and is expected to deliver his recommendations next spring.

Last month antibiotic resistance was selected as the focus for the £10m Longitude Prize, set up to tackle a major challenge of our time.

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