'Why antibiotic resistance is now our planet's biggest health issue'

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SOME global problems can seem insurmountable to us as individuals. What can we do about hunger, poverty, war, the destruction of the environment?

But, as Nelson Mandela once famously remarked, “one person can change the world” and never was that more the case than when it comes to solving our planet’s biggest health issue – antibiotic resistance.

Our planets biggest health issue is antibiotic resistance.

Our planets biggest health issue is antibiotic resistance.

That isn’t to say we don’t have an Everest to climb. Because not only is this problem currently causing 700,000 deaths each year globally, but health experts have warned that increased resistance to drugs that fight infections is a bigger threat to human kind than cancer.

Antibiotics have been rightly hailed as the wonder-drugs of the 20th century. From the moment Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928, they revolutionised the world of medicine and allied to vaccination, pretty much rendered illnesses such as tuberculosis to the dustbin of British history. Speak to someone from our grandparents’ generation and they may recall a time when someone could die from an infected scratch.

Antibiotics should only be used to control or kill bacteria. Most infectious diseases are caused by bacteria, which is why broad spectrum antibiotics are used to treat all kinds of conditions from skin infections to chest infections such as pneumonia.

But overuse and abuse of antibiotics have resulted in bacteria becoming hardier and resistant to these miracle medicines. And that is a potential death sentence for someone with a low or compromised immune system (such as babies, older people, patients being treated for serious conditions such as cancer) especially if they contract a hospital infection or complication like sepsis.

Wilf (not his real name) went into hospital on the eve of his 97th birthday to have a hip replacement procedure carried out. The operation was successful but he then contracted a hospital infection and, unable to fight it, passed away a few days later. Wilf is one of 9,000 people who die of so-called hospital superbugs each year and in all, an estimated 12,000 in the UK perish per annum from antibiotic-resistant infections.

If the current situation is alarming, the future portents are positively grave.

England’s Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies recently warned: “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.”

Globally, close-on half-a-million people develop multi-drug resistant TB each year and antibiotic resistance is starting to make treatment for conditions such as HIV and malaria difficult.

Thankfully, there has at least been some progress in raising the issue of antibiotic resistance. Dame Sally made her remarks at a conference in Berlin that was organised by the UK Government with backing from the UN and was attended by world scientists, politicians, clinicians and drugs companies.

York-based Antibiotic Research UK (ANTRUK) is the world’s first and only charity to tackle antibiotic resistance and our commitment includes working with university academics and biotech companies to find new and effective forms of treatment. Historically, the problem has been that drugs companies stopped making antibiotics long ago, citing high costs of development and low returns.

This is why ANTRUK would welcome your support in changing attitudes perhaps by lobbying your MP to find a way of incentivising research and stopping our medicines from descending back into the dark ages.

There are other simple changes you can make to ease this crisis. Firstly, do not demand antibiotics from doctors, nurse practitioners or pharmacists. The NHS has become picky about who it prescribes them to, and quite right! Antibiotics kill off bacteria and cannot cure colds, flu or any other virus. Never be tempted to use old antibiotics their effectiveness will probably have diminished anyway. Don’t get them from any other source than a health carer and, complete the full course. Good hygiene also helps prevents the spread of bacteria.

ANTRUK is also encouraging you to take tea and help raise awareness and funds to combat antibiotic resistance by holding a Great British Tea Party. During World Antibiotics Awareness Week (November 13-19) we are asking that friends, families and communities come together to talk about the issue, contribute a few pounds and stop this problem from brewing for future generations.

We have the opportunity as individuals to affect our own and our children and grandchildren’s health for the better, by raising our voices and taking practical steps. And I know you will do that. Because caring is something we’re good at in Yorkshire.

Professor Colin Garner is the chief executive of Antibiotic Research UK (ANTRUK).

You can register to take part in their Great British Tea party by visiting here.