Antibiotic resistance: a looming crisis

  1. Antibiotic resistance jeopardises common treatments
  2. 'It's definitely going to get worse'
  3. 'Stop treating antibiotics like sweets'

By 2050 antibiotic resistant infections could kill 10 million people every year, the curator of a major exhibition on the subject has warned.

“This is one of these scenarios where millions of people could die, and are dying, and we could do something about it right now in order to protect people years down the line – if we act,” Sheldon Paquin said at the launch of London’s Science Museum ‘Superbugs’ exhibition.

“Otherwise, we could very well be part of that statistic where in 2050 we’re looking at 10 million people dying every year from antibiotic-resistant infections,” he said.

The petri dish on the left has a large clear area around the antibiotic containing white paper discs so shows these bacteria are sensitive to the antibiotics. The petri dish on the right has only two small circles around the antibiotic containing white paper discs so shows these bacteria are resistant to most of the antibiotics.
The petri dish on the left has a large clear area around the antibiotic containing white paper discs so shows these bacteria are sensitive to the antibiotics. The petri dish on the right has only two small circles around the antibiotic containing white paper discs so shows these bacteria are resistant to most of the antibiotics. (Author: Dr Graham Beards, CC BY SA 4.0)

The start of the exhibition, Superbugs: The Fight for Our Lives, which documents the growing threat of antibiotic resistance, came just before World Antibiotic Awareness Week promoted by the World Health Organization and runs until spring 2019.

The exhibition highlights the scale of antibiotic resistance, features new technologies trying to counter the problem and displays penicillium mould grown from the original samples used by Alexander Fleming, when he first identified penicillin.

Paquin told Wikitribune that even common procedures we take for granted – caesareans, hip and knee replacements, chemotherapy – might be impossible in the future because the risk of untreatable infection could be too high. “We really need to step up our networking between hospitals and also between countries. Bacteria don’t have borders, but we … kind of do.”

Sheldon Paquin has spent the last 12 months curating the exhibition Superbugs: The Fight For Our Lives (WikiTribune/Francis Augusto CC BY SA 3.0)
Sheldon Paquin has spent the last 12 months curating the exhibition Superbugs: The Fight For Our Lives (WikiTribune/Francis Augusto CC BY SA 3.0)

Lord (Jim) O’Neill, who chaired the British government and industry investigation, Review on Antimicrobial Resistance, commissioned by then Prime Minister David Cameron, said, “the problem’s definitely going to get worse.”

“Even if every pharmaceutical company decided in the next five minutes to focus on it [antibiotic resistance], we wouldn’t have all the new drugs for another decade at least.”

Jim O'Neill was asked to be Chairman of the Review of Antimicrobial Resistance by David Cameron because of his experience as an economist
Jim O’Neill was asked to chair the Review of Antimicrobial Resistance by David Cameron because of his experience as an economist (Photo:WikiTribune/Francis Augusto CC BY SA 3.0)

The time-lag for drug development is long. It can take companies 15 or 20 years to get a successful drug to market.

As well as developing new drugs, O’Neill said “we need to stop treating antibiotics like sweets” and that “in general antibiotic prescription is excessive in the UK.” According to O’Neill there’s evidence of at least 50 percent over-prescription in many parts of the developed world.

Seema Patel, medical director of Pfizer Essential Health UK, explained “a lot of people think that going to a GP (general practitioner) and getting an antibiotic is a successful visit to the GP. Many times they don’t necessarily need an antibiotic, and that wastage and that misuse of the antibiotic drives resistance.”

On the positive side, the rate of prescription in the UK appears to be slowing. However, doctors prescribing patients fewer drugs presents a problem for pharmaceutical companies.

Seema Patel, Medical Director of American pharmaceutical company Pfizer Essential Health UK (Photo:WikiTribune/Francis Augusto CC BY SA 3.0)
Seema Patel, medical director of American pharmaceutical company Pfizer Essential Health UK (Photo:WikiTribune/Francis Augusto CC BY SA 3.0)

Laura Bowater, professor of microbiology education and engagement at the University of East Anglia, said  to “those who are saying to those pharmaceutical companies: ‘you know what? We don’t wanna use our antibiotic that readily. We want to keep it for special occasions when nothing else works. It’s gonna be put on the top shelf and only used occasionally.’ I wouldn’t invest in that, would you?”

She believes drug research needs to be made more attractive to pharmaceutical companies, suggesting they could possibly own drug patents for longer to maximise profits. To incentivise the development of new pharmaceutical drugs, one of the Antimicrobial Resistance review’s recommendations is that medical companies that produce a new desired drug should receive a grant of around $1.2 billion.

Bowater says: “If you look at the Large Hadron Collider, [or] the space program that takes millions and millions of pounds – the government’s happy to invest in that – we don’t see nearly that amount of money going into research into antimicrobial resistance. More money goes into cancer. But actually, antimicrobial resistance is going to be more of a concern than cancer in 33 years time.”

Professor of Microbiology Education and Engagement at UEA, Laura Bowater, leads a science public engagement programme.
Laura Bowater is professor of microbiology education and engagement at the University of East Anglia.  (Photo:WikiTribune/Francis Augusto CC BY SA 3.0)

The Review on Antimicrobial Resistance also recommends farmers reduce their use of antibiotics on livestock.

Agriculture has become a massive consumer of antibiotics. In 2009, 80 percent of all antibiotics sold were used on livestock and poultry, according to environmental sustainability pressure group, the Worldwatch Institute. While farmers might fear reduced profits without them, O’Neill says that Denmark, a major pork producer, decided more than ten years ago to slash its use of antibiotics in agriculture, and subsequently its share of the global bacon market rose. “There’s no evidence to suggest that [reducing antibiotic use] would make life more difficult for farmers. They just need to behave differently, as we need our doctors to behave differently, too,” he says.

According to Bowater, future research efforts should pursue both drugs derived from natural and synthetic chemical compounds. But she says, “natural products have been the winners up until now.”

bacteria petri dish Pixabay (CCO)
Bacteria petri dish (Pixabay, CCO)

See Harry Ridgewell’s feature on how the loss of forests is endangering development of new effective drugs.

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