Andrea Jenkyns: Facing up to a serious global threat to health

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A THREAT has emerged that is bigger than climate change and terrorism, and the danger is imminent if we do not act now. Anti-bacterial resistance is a global problem that requires leaders of all countries to put the issue firmly on their agenda. Collective working is needed between governments, pharmaceutical companies, global NGOs such as the United Nations, the farming industry and the general public, and I know first-hand the devastating consequences if the matter is not taken seriously.

November 15, 2011 is the day that changed my life forever as my beloved father passed away. In July, he had been admitted into a Yorkshire hospital for a routine operation and he caught the superbug MRSA. My Dad was also my best friend and was a real positive influence on my life and his loss hit me hard and was one of the driving forces behind why I decided to stand for Parliament as I sought to make a difference to improve hospital standards.

Over two years ago I joined the charity MRSA Action UK as a trustee and I became the Yorkshire regional voluntary representative.

Only last week a woman told me how she, her husband and new-born baby caught MRSA. Despite several courses of antibiotics, both her husband and baby still have the virus.

With some 25,000 people a year dying from infections resistant to antibiotic drugs in Europe alone, this is a threat that is happening right now. I personally believe the problem is much bigger as it tends to be just blood-stream infections that are included in the statistics and not surgical-site caught infections which are a common way in which to catch them.

Since the pioneering of anti-bacterial drugs some 70 years ago, the pharmaceutical industry has done much to save the lives of millions of people; however the success has led to widespread demand by both the medical and farming sectors. This created an adverse effect; the over-prescription of antibiotics has led to our bodies becoming resistant to their effects. The result is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to fight off the stronger strains of infections.

While many physicians understood the danger of over-prescribing antibiotics and sought to cut back, the farming industry increased their use and it now accounts for over 50 per cent of consumption in Europe and 70 per cent in the United States.

It is used as a preventative measure for many intensively farmed animals to stop them getting sick.

The dangers of overuse of antibiotics in the farming industry are not a new phenomenon. In 1969 the Swann Report was presented to Parliament detailing the concerns over the use of antibiotics in animal husbandry and veterinary medicine. We need to act now to ensure that they too take the matter seriously and cut back on consumption.

“Do you believe that simply washing your hands can save a life?” This was a question that I posed to some 100 medical professionals at a healthcare conference. Shockingly very few put their hands up to agree with this statement.

I have personally seen doctors and nurses forget to wash their hands when treating patients, I have also seen visitors to hospitals not wash their hands when visiting loved ones. Failing to wash hands can spread the bacteria from one person to another and this is why as a charity we work with hospital trusts and schools to conduct training and emphasise the importance of hand hygiene.

In my experience we have found that while many hospitals are doing much to increase awareness about the importance of hand hygiene, more needs to be done on a personal level. We need to humanise statistics; these 25,000 people who die each year in Europe are not just a number, they are someone’s father, son, daughter and loved one, and I would urge medical professionals to remember this when they forget to spend just a minute washing their hands and for each of us to play our part too when visiting friends or relations in hospital.

I was delighted to hear David Cameron’s call for global action to tackle the increasing threat of resistance to antibiotics as a growing numbers of bacterial and viral infections are resistant to antimicrobial drugs, but no new classes of antibiotics have come 
on the market for more than 25 years.

We need a global big hitter to put this on the agenda. He has commissioned a wide-reaching, independent review to explore the economic issues surrounding antimicrobial resistance and wants Britain to lead the way, using our world leading pharmaceutical sector to battle against antimicrobial resistant infections and bring new drugs to the world market.

If collectively we do not act we will regress to when once treatable common infections and minor injuries can once again kill.

• Andrea Jenkyns is Yorkshire Regional Voluntary Rep for MRSA Action UK and the Conservative Party’s prospective parliamentary candidate for Morley and Outwood.