No escape from superbugs crisis

Last updated 05:00 01/05/2014

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Superbugs are now everywhere and New Zealand will not escape the looming crisis of drug-resistant bacteria.

In a landmark report issued this morning, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned resistance to antibiotics is rising around the world, threatening to wipe out decades of progress on public health.

"The world is headed for a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries which have been treatable for decades can once again kill," said Dr Keiji Fukuda, the WHO's Assistant Director-General for Health Security.

Experts say that drug-resistant superbugs are already in New Zealand and as resistance grows globally so will the risk of a major deadly outbreak here.

"Anti-bacterial resistant is only ever just a plane ride away," Professor Kurt Krause, at the University of Otago, said.

Dr Debbie Williamson, clinical microbiologist at the Institute of Environmental Science and Research, said New Zealand's isolation and strict monitoring had so far prevented a major outbreaks of deadly superbugs.

However, the country already had high rates for several antibiotic resistant bugs, known as ESBL and MRSA, with about 2000 cases a year.

The WHO report found people with MRSA are 64 per cent more likely to die from the infection than people with a non-resistant strain.

"And it is inevitable that we will continue to see the importation of resistant bacteria from other parts of the world," Williamson said.

Auckland University microbiologist Dr Siouxsie Wiles said New Zealand was not prepared for a post-antibiotic world and more investment was urgently need in alternative treatment.

"It could be that something as simple as stubbing your toe or cutting your finger could kill you because we won't be able to combat infection."

Last year Wellington teacher Brian Pool became New Zealand's first known victim of an aggressive superbug resistant to every type of antibiotic.

While Pool died of complications from a stroke rather than the bacteria, he spent most of the last six months of his life in Wellington Hospital quarantine to contain the incurable infection.

Wellington Hospital's clinical microbiologist Dr Mark Jones said at any given time about 15 people were under quarantine at the hospital with antibiotic-resistant bugs.

The numbers of infected were rising and it was evitable more "pan-resistant" superbugs, like the one contracted by Pool, would surface in New Zealand.

The WHO report found there was widespread global antibiotic resistance in strains of everything from bloodstream infections to pneumonia.

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In some instances, the bugs were now resistant to "last resort" treatment used to save lives and there remained big gaps in tracking the growing global spread of superbugs.

The organisation called for doctors to limit and control inappropriate prescribing of antibiotics, for better infection control in hospitals, and more investment to kick-start the flagging development of new antibiotics and alternative treatments.


The rising use of antibiotics gives bacteria a greater opportunity to become resistant, rendering the drugs useless.

Here are a few tips for keeping bugs in line:

  • Only use antibiotics prescribed by a doctor.
  • Complete your full prescription, even if you feel fine.
  • Never share antibiotics or use up leftover prescriptions.
  • Observe good hygiene, such as thorough and regular hand washing, particularly in hospital, where there is a heightened risk of infection.

- The Dominion Post


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