When Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer for England, described antibiotic resistance as a ‘catastrophic threat’ to the world akin to terrorism and climate change, it was a statement designed to make people sit up and take notice.
Indeed some notice has been taken; the publication of Dame Sally’s annual report in March led to antibiotic resistance being added to the national risk register and being high on the agenda of the G8 science minister’s meeting in advance of the G8 summit in Northern Ireland. Furthermore, an all-party parliamentary group has been set up and a number of organisations have sprung up, including Antibiotic Action.
But what’s all the fuss about? Bacterial infections account for 7% of all deaths in England and account for one in five days off work. Antibiotic resistance occurs when problem-causing bacteria are able to survive the medicines aimed to destroy them and as a result treatments become ineffective. It is a global problem as resistance can spread across countries and between species.
However, antibiotic resistance can be countered providing we have a constant stream of novel antibiotics; but this is not the case. No new classes of antibiotic have been discovered since 1987. Furthermore resistance is rapidly building to the few remaining treatments we do have. According to Dame Sally, our healthcare system could return to a 19th century environment where routine operations could be fatal due to bacterial infections incurred. In addition, many cancer treatments or organ transplants could be near impossible.
Antibiotic resistance is linked with exposure so, as well as developing new antibiotics, we need to control how the remaining effective therapies we do have are utilised. GPs prescribe 35 million courses of antibiotics in England alone each year and the vast majority of surgical procedures invoke antibiotics. These medicines are also commonplace in farming practices and are routinely given to animals as both treatments for livestock and preventative measures for healthy animals. Action must be taken to ensure that antibiotics are used only when absolutely necessary and are not relied on as an ‘easy option’.
The pharmaceutical industry must be called upon to increase focus and spending on the development of new antibiotics. However, a financial disincentive exists as any new therapy developed is likely to be shelved for as long as possible to avoid the build-up of resistance. Even when it is eventually used, it would be prescribed only for short periods of treatment rather than for months or years. Hence, in the current uncertain drug discovery landscape, new antibiotics are certainly not regarded as ‘money-spinners’ and so are often not prioritised.
In order to address these issues, the Biochemical Society is supporting the work of Antibiotic Action. This campaign seeks to inform and educate all about the need for discovery, research and development of new antibiotics. It contributes to national and international activities and acts as a conduit through which all stakeholders are educated on the importance of new ways to treat bacterial infections. Antibiotic Action is overseen by an Advisory Group comprising antibiotic experts from academic research, the pharmaceutical industry, regulatory affairs, clinical practices, international affairs and patients. Furthermore they work alongside colleagues in Europe, the United States and further afield to identify how all sectors can be informed of this pending crisis and to identify what opportunities exist for the discovery, research, and development of new antibiotics.
The Biochemical Society and Antibiotic Action believe that it is vital to the health of all nations that antibiotics remain the mainstay of modern medicine and are available to all who need them.