‘Antibiotic apocalypse’: doctors sound alarm over drug resistance

We are headed to a very scary future where standard hospital procedures will become impossible and centralized hospitals will no longer work. We are headed back to the past, pre 1928.

Scientists attending a recent meeting of the American Society for Microbiology reported they had uncovered a highly disturbing trend. They revealed that bacteria containing a gene known as mcr-1 – which confers resistance to the antibiotic colistin – had spread round the world at an alarming rate since its original discovery 18 months earlier. In one area of China, it was found that 25% of hospital patients now carried the gene. Colistin is known as the “antibiotic of last resort”. In many parts of the world doctors have turned to its use because patients were no longer responding to any other antimicrobial agent. Now resistance to its use is spreading across the globe. In the words of England’s chief medical officer, Sally Davies: “The world is facing an antibiotic apocalypse.”

Unless action is taken to halt the practices that have allowed antimicrobial resistance to spread and ways are found to develop new types of antibiotics, we could return to the days when routine operations, simple wounds or straightforward infections could pose real threats to life, she warns. That terrifying prospect will be the focus of a major international conference to be held in Berlin this week. Organised by the UK government, the Wellcome Trust, the UN and several other national governments, the meeting will be attended by scientists, health officers, pharmaceutical chiefs and politicians. Its task is to try to accelerate measures to halt the spread of drug resistance, which now threatens to remove many of the major weapons currently deployed by doctors in their war against disease.

The arithmetic is stark and disturbing, as the conference organizers make clear.  At present about 700,000 people a year die from drug-resistant infections.  However, this global figure is growing relentlessly and could reach 10 million a year by 2050. The danger, say scientists, is one of the greatest that humanity has faced in recent times. In a drug-resistant world, many aspects of modern medicine would simply become impossible. An example is provided by transplant surgery. During operations, patients’ immune systems have to be suppressed to stop them rejecting a new organ, leaving them prey to infections. So doctors use immunosuppressant cancer drugs. In future, however, these may no longer be effective.

Or take the example of more standard operations, such as abdominal surgery or the removal of a patient’s appendix. Without antibiotics to protect them during these procedures, people will die of peritonitis or other infections. The world will face the same risks as it did before Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928. [..] “In the Ganges during pilgrimage season, there are levels of antibiotics in the river that we try to achieve in the bloodstream of patients,” says Davies. “That is very, very disturbing.”

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