Antibiotic resistence fears grow

Last updated 14:36 25/01/2013

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Resistance to antibiotics is building so fast the world may face an "apocalyptic scenario" in 20 years, Britain's chief medical officer has warned.

But Auckland District Health Board's clinical microbiologist Deborah Williamson says while there was "no doubt" antibiotic resistance posed a threat to New Zealand and the world, this country had a more positive outlook than some others as good monitoring processes were already in place.

As long as doctors and patients in New Zealand continued using the drugs carefully then most treatments here should continue to be effective, Williamson said.

It's a different scenario in some developing countries, however, where resistance to antibiotics could become so strong in 20 years "some infections will become untreatable".

Many routine operations which were aided by antibiotics today could result in death in the future as resistance to antibiotics builds and we were unable to fight off infections, Britain's most senior medical adviser Dame Sally Davies told British MPs, the Guardian reported.

Davies is calling on Britain's government to include antibiotic resistance in its national risk of civil emergencies, saying it poses a threat comparable to catastrophic flooding, terrorist attacks and flu pandemics.

"There are few public health issues of potentially greater importance for society than antibiotic resistance. It means we are at increasing risk of developing infections that cannot be treated - but resistance can be managed," she said.

"We need to get our act together."

Williamson, who is also researching antibiotic resistance, said it was a result of consistent antibiotic use.

"We need to use antibiotics and we need to use them carefully. There are a number of things we can do to prevent the emergence of antibiotic-resistance."

This included ensuring patients were only prescribed antibiotics when necessary, rather than for the common cold.

New Zealand had good monitoring systems, preventive approaches and restrictions on what antibiotics doctors could prescribe, Williamson said.

Kiwis had low-rates of antibiotic resistance but more research, however, was always needed, she said.

Davies, who is calling for more action not only in the UK, but throughout the world, was due to publish an action-plan to tackle the issue in March.

Some diseases were becoming increasingly drug-resistance, including gonorrhoea, which was 80 per cent resistant to a particular antibiotic, and TB, which was resistant to multiple drugs, Davies said.

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There was also a rise in infections that were resistance to even the most powerful antibiotics, she said.

New Zealand's Ministry of Health says there are some strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that are well established here, occurring not only in infections treated in hospitals and medical facilities, but also in the community.

A recent report by the World Economic Forum said that antibiotic resistance was one of the greatest risks to human health and medical successes in the past may be creating a false sense of security.

"Until now, new antibiotics have been developed to replace older, increasingly ineffective ones. However, human innovation may no longer be outpacing bacterial mutation."

Essentially, the drug development pipeline was running dry, experts said.

This was for several reasons, including that drug companies put more effort in to developing drugs which treated chronic conditions and had to be consumed for years, rather than antibiotics, the Guardian reported.

"There is a broken market model for making new antibiotics," Davies told the British government. 

Davies would not reveal what was in her report, which is due to be published in March.

She has met with officials at the World Health Organisation and medical officials around the world to develop a strategy to tackle antibiotic resistance globally.

- Stuff

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