Growing threat to patients as superbug resistance grows

The rise of drug-resistant superbugs is a ‘timebomb’ which could make even routine surgery life-threatening, the UK Government’s Chief Medical Officer has warned.


Professor Dame Sally Davies warns that the growing resistance to antibiotics could leave millions vulnerable within the next ten years, and ‘will send the health service back to 19th century’.

There has been no new class of antibiotic discovery since 1987, whereas a new infection emerges yearly.The risk is so serious that Dame Sally has asked the Government to put antibiotic resistance on the national risk register, along with terrorist attacks or a national flu pandemic. Doctors are also being ordered to prescribe fewer antibiotics.

‘That is one way of getting central and cross-government action internationally,’ she said. ‘It should be [on the register] because this is a growing problem. And if we don’t get it right, we will find ourselves in a health system not dissimilar to the early 19th century at some point.
‘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. And routine operations like hip replacements or organ transplants could be deadly because of the risk of infection.’

A number of infections are already difficult to treat including E Coli; drug resistant TB – cases of extensively-resistant TB, which resists almost all types of drugs, have also emerged in the UK, with 12 in the past two years – as many as in the previous 15 years.

In the past five years, the number of cases of blood poisoning from antimicrobial resistant (AMR) forms of E. coli – which is twice as fatal as the normal bug – has gone up 60 per cent.

The drug-resistant gut bug alone, which is picked up in hospital in half of cases, could be responsible for up to 2,500 deaths in 2011 – more than MRSA and C. difficile combined.

Another issue which is undermining the efforts to stem resistance is the use of antibiotics liberally used in agriculture, and their availability over the counter in some countries.

In 2010, infectious diseases accounted for 7 per cent of all deaths and 4 per cent of all potential years of life lost in England.