Most of us know someone who's gone into hospital for an operation, and become infected with a hospital superbug.

I met someone recently who went into hospital for a knee operation, developed an antibiotic resistant infection, and had to inject antibiotics into her knee three times a day for the next three months.

This is not unusual, as getting rid of the antibiotic resistant super-bug can be worse than recovering from an operation, and invariably results in a longer and far more expensive hospital stay, and sometimes in permanent disability as well.

It's hard to work out how many people, each year, are infected with a superbug while in hospital, or how many people die as a result of developing an untreatable infection, as health officials are reluctant to divulge this information.


Despite years of trying, I have never managed to extract these figures in New Zealand.

But for the first time, an American Federal Agency has admitted that 23,000 Americans die every year from bacterial infections that cannot be treated because of antibiotic resistance; a further 14,000 die from related infections, and two million Americans become ill as a result of antibiotic resistant infections.

The American Centre for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that antibiotic resistance is costing the American economy more than $20 billion in direct health costs, and a further $35 billion in lost productivity.

Centre director Tom Friedan warns, "if we're not careful, the medicine chest will be empty when we go there for a life-saving antibiotic. Without urgent action now, more patients will be thrust back to a time before we had effective drugs."

There have been numerous, similar warnings in recent years.

The World Health Organisation says the rapid growth of antibiotic resistance is one of the three greatest health threats facing humanity. Last year a British health boss said it posed as great a threat to the world as terrorism or climate change, and should be a top political priority.

But despite these repeated, dire warnings, the rapid spread of antibiotic resistance in New Zealand doesn't seem to be exercising the minds of our political leaders.

Each year the Institute of Environmental Science conducts two short surveys of superbugs, and these show that common strains of bacteria such as salmonella, E coli and Staphylococcus have become resistant to a wide variety of antibiotics, while the incidence of the superbug MRSA has doubled in the past decade, increasing by an astonishing 37 per cent in 2011.


Superbugs have also become established in the community, especially in Auckland, Counties Manukau and Northland.

You would think this would ring alarm bells, and provoke strong national action. But no, there doesn't seem to be any government leadership on the issue. It doesn't rate a mention in the 43-page document (the statement of corporate intent) that sets out the Government's priorities and targets for health.

There is no national strategy to combat antibiotic resistance in New Zealand, or even a national antibiotic resistant surveillance system, to monitor how rapidly bacteria are developing resistance. An antibiotic resistant advisory group that was set up to advise the Government on the problem has been disbanded. There is no obligation on heath services to report cases of MRSA and other superbugs, and hospital and community laboratories are not even funded to test for antibiotic resistance, although they are encouraged to report on it voluntarily.

It seems to be left up to district health boards to develop their own individual strategies to improve infection control and try to reduce the number of hospital acquitted infections. And while some are making a real effort, others are not.

Meantime, successive governments have turned a blind eye to the routine practice of feeding vast quantities of antibiotics to animals that are not even sick, which is contributing to the spread of antibiotic resistance.

Millions of chickens are fed low doses of antibiotics continuously in their feed and water - and this, inevitably, results in the emergence of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. If antibiotic- resistant bacteria remain on meat, they can make people sick, or pass their resistance on to other bacteria in our intestines, and spread antibiotic resistance that way.


And of course, residues of antibiotics end up in manure that is spread around the environment as fertiliser, and end up in waterways and groundwater.

I don't know what it will take to persuade the Government to take the issue seriously, and give it the priority it deserves. A disaster perhaps? But by then it will probably be too late.

Sue Kedgley is a former Green MP.