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.
The arithmetic is stark and disturbing, as the conference organisers
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.
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.
One of the biggest problems we face over the spread of antimicrobial
resistance. One Swedish study followed a group of young backpackers who
went off on holiday to different parts of the world. None had resistant
bacteria in their guts when they left. When they returned a quarter of
them had picked up resistant bugs. That shows the pervasive nature of
the problem we face.