Julian Sturdy: Sickening to see a golden age of medicine dying

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MANY people will be aware that the 20th century discovery of antimicrobial drugs, a class of medicine that includes antivirals, antimalarials and antibiotics, such as penicillin, is among the greatest medical breakthroughs of our time. However, we have failed to heed the warnings of such people as Alexander Fleming, who, when collecting his part of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1945, warned: “There is the danger that the ignorant man may easily under-dose himself and by exposing his microbes to non-lethal quantities of the drug make them resistant.”

There has never been any doubt about the link between the misuse of antibiotics and resistance to them, but despite this antibiotics have been misused and, as a consequence, we now face the prospect of losing modern medicine as we know it. If people take a moment to think about the consequences, they will find them frankly horrifying.

In 2013, the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, told Parliament of a horrific scenario where people going for simple operations in 20 years’ time could die of routine infections because “we have run out of antibiotics”.

In 20 years’ time, my children will be in their late 20s. Parents and families around the country will all want their children, and the next generation after that, to have the medical guarantees that we have the luxury of being afforded today, so inaction is simply not an option.

Antibiotic resistance is already changing clinical practices in this country. For example, in recent years complication rates for prostate biopsy, which carries a risk of septicaemia, have increased from less than one per cent in 1996 to nearly four per cent in 2005. Due to this, doctors are now carrying out the biopsy in a different way.

The rise of antibiotic resistance is widely seen by organisations such as the European Food Safety Authority and the World Health Organisation as a consequence of the use and overuse of antibiotics in both veterinary and human medicine.

For far too long antibiotics have been used as if they were a bottomless pit of cure-all miracle treatments. Some 30 years ago, the battle against infectious diseases appeared to have been won, at least in the developed world. The old drugs could handle whatever bugs came along, which meant there was no market for new ones.

That is why, since the year 2000, just five new classes of antibiotics have been discovered, and most of these are ineffective against the increasingly significant problem posed by gram-negative bacteria, which are also difficult to detect. The fact is that misuse, over-prescription and poor diagnostics have driven an environment that favours the proliferation of resistant strains of bacteria, rendering once vital medicines obsolete.

If we look at deaths related to MRSA, which is a bacterial infection resistant to a number of popular antibiotics, mortality rates rose steadily in the UK from 1993 onwards to peak at more than 2,000 in 2007. Bacteria and parasites are already developing resistance to front-line antimicrobials, which are over-prescribed and under-regulated, leading to 25,000 people dying each year in Europe from infections that doctors were unable to treat with the drugs available to them.

In an increasingly interconnected world, an infection that emerges in Delhi today will have an impact in London tomorrow. More needs to be done on a scientific level to develop new antibiotics and to improve diagnostics, but science alone will not solve the problem.

India has a problem with the overuse and under-use of antibiotics. The under-use is mainly due to the lack of prescriptions. However, in 2005-06, a large proportion of infant and childhood deaths from pneumonia would not have occurred if the children had been properly treated with antibiotics.

India has emerged as the world’s largest consumer of antibiotics, with a 62 per cent increase over the past decade. They consume an average of 11 antibiotic tablets a person a year. In India, it is commonplace for someone with a sore throat to go to the chemist and choose the antibiotic they want to use. From there, many people will go to a clinic and are given their chosen antibiotics intravenously to treat the sore throat. Usually, the full dose is not administered. That is a horrendous example of the misuse of antibiotics and simply cannot be allowed to continue. Over-the-counter regulation needs to be tightened in lesser developed countries and people need to be better educated on the problems associated with misuse.

The golden age of medicine could well be behind us. It is time to step up to the plate as politicians and take decisions which might not bear fruit in the short term and might not secure votes in forthcoming elections, but can help to secure the golden age of medical discovery that we have had the fortune to benefit from. We must ensure that it is not squandered for future generations.

• Julian Sturdy is the Conservative MP for York Outer. This is an edited version of a Parliamentary debate on antibiotics.