Medicine set for ‘return to Dark Ages’

Leafcutter ants produce a natural antibiotic. Picture: SWNSLeafcutter ants produce a natural antibiotic. Picture: SWNS
Leafcutter ants produce a natural antibiotic. Picture: SWNS
MEDICINE will be sent “back into the Dark Ages” unless urgent action is taken to tackle rising resistance to antibiotics, the Prime Minister has warned.

David Cameron said Britain would lead the fightback against antibiotic-resistant superbugs with a major review to look at what can be done to prevent future patients being killed by previously treatable illnesses.

He said resistance to antibiotics was a “very real and worrying threat” and said an international group of experts would aim to stimulate the development of a “new generation of antibiotics”.

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Antibiotics have revolutionised healthcare since the development of penicillin in 1928. But no new classes of the drug have been created in the last 25 years.

At the same time, there has been a growing issue of bacteria developing resistance to the drugs, leading to problems such as MRSA, which is resistant to all but the most powerful anti-biotics.

Outlining his concerns, Mr Cameron said: “This is not some distant threat but something happening right now.

“If we fail, we are looking at an almost unthinkable scenario where antibiotics no longer work and we are cast back into the Dark Ages of medicine where treatable infections and injuries will kill once again.

“That simply cannot be allowed to happen and I want to see a stronger, more coherent global response.”

Former Goldman Sachs chief economist Jim O’Neill will lead the expert group and has been asked to consider how governments would pay pharmaceutical companies to produce drugs even if they were rarely used.

The group will also consider how poorer countries can be encouraged to improve control of existing antibiotics, with poor use contributing to growing rates of resistance. The Prime Minister said: “I’ve been listening to the scientific advice that I get, and the network of advisers we have are all saying this is one of the most serious health problems the world faces.

“For many of us, we only know a world where infections or sicknesses can be quickly remedied by a visit to the doctor and a course of antibiotics.

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“But that protection is at risk as never before. Resistance to antibiotics is now a very real and worrying threat.”

He added: “When we’ve had these problems in the past, whether it is how we tackle HIV and Aids, how it is possible to lead the world and get rid of diseases like polio, Britain has taken a lead and I think it is right we take a lead again.”

The Prime Minister raised the issue privately with US president Barack Obama and German chancellor Angela Merkel during the G7 summit last month.

The initial £500,000 cost of the work will be met by the Wellcome Trust, whose director Jeremy Farrar said: “Drug-resistant bacteria, viruses and parasites are driving a global health crisis.

“It threatens not only our ability to treat deadly infections, but almost every aspect of modern medicine: from cancer treatment to Caesarean sections.

“Therapies that save thousands of lives every day rely on antibiotics that could soon be lost. We are failing to contain the rise of resistance, and failing to develop new drugs to replace those that no longer work. We are heading for a post-antibiotic age.”

Dr Aileen Keel, acting chief medical officer for Scotland, said: “Antimicrobial resistance is a global problem – national and international action is needed to improve treatment, education and monitoring.

“Bacteria are becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics, leaving us facing serious problems in the future.”