Collapse of antibiotics 'colossal threat'

By Martin Johnston

Super-bacteria are becoming more prevalent in New Zealand and around the world. Photo / Getty Images
Super-bacteria are becoming more prevalent in New Zealand and around the world. Photo / Getty Images

One of New Zealand's top clinical microbiologists has joined the warning of Britain's chief doctor that the growing resistance to antibiotics poses catastrophic threats to human health and receives too little attention internationally.

"It doesn't get taken as seriously as some of these other issues such as the global threats of terrorism," said Dr Sally Roberts, an infectious diseases physician at Auckland City Hospital and the head of microbiology at its laboratory.

Britain's Chief Medical Officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, warned this week that failure to act could see patients go into hospital for minor surgery and die from an ordinary infection as more bugs grow resistant to antibiotics.

The number of people infected or harmlessly "colonised" by super-bacteria resistant to multiple or in some cases all antibiotics is growing internationally and in New Zealand.

Environmental Science & Research (ESR) said the country's prevalence of a methicillin-resistant bug called MRSA grew significantly in a decade, "culminating in a massive 37 per cent increase between 2010 and 2011".

Dr Roberts echoed the dire British warnings on the growing resistance of micro-organisms to treatment, following the health-care revolution since the mid-1900s based on an array of vaccines and antimicrobial drugs.

In her annual report, Dame Sally outlined the "apocalyptic scenario" of Britain's health system rapidly falling back two centuries, if new, sustained and costly efforts were not made in what she called "the war" against bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites.

"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 recommended the "ticking time-bomb" of antimicrobial resistance be entered on to Britain's National Risk Register, which also includes "catastrophic terrorist attacks" and other civil emergencies.

She said the issue was "as important as climate change for the world" and urged her Government to raise it with world leaders at the G8 summit in London next month. She highlighted the "discovery void" - the paucity of new drugs being developed to replace many antibiotics that were becoming increasingly ineffective against some organisms.

No new classes of antibiotics have been developed since 1987 and none are in the pipeline, although some new individual drugs are being developed.

Dame Sally blamed a market failure. For big drug companies there was relatively little return on the huge expense of developing new antibiotics, which would be taken in short courses, especially when compared to life-long drugs, such as for high blood pressure.

"We may have to work with the pharmaceutical companies in public-private partnerships, and we may have to do some development of antibiotics on a public basis," she said.

Dr Roberts said New Zealand was already doing a lot to prevent and control the growth of antimicrobial resistance - such as hospitals' controls on junior doctors prescribing certain antibiotics and good screening to isolate patients who were potentially infected overseas - but more was needed, and better co-ordination.

"Typically what happens is individual district health boards are doing their own thing.

"We need the political will to say that this is really important and resource it adequately, not just add it to the workload of the DHBs.

"It actually takes time to educate and bring about change because you've got to go and see the charts and see the patients and look at the work, the microbiology and provide guidance that way. It's not something you can just do from an office.

"We haven't had a national strategy around antimicrobial resistance surveillance."

She said data from the ESR annual surveys of the number of people affected by superbugs and patterns of microbial resistance was limited.

"They get the name, age and site and that's it. You get no outcome data, so you don't get whether a person died or survived."

The report: www.dh.gov.uk

- NZ Herald

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