With all the news about a killer virus, how much should we worry about bacteria and antibiotic resistance? Experts say superbugs are as big a threat to humans as climate crisis and war. Why?
What are antibiotics?
To answer that question, let’s rewind to 1928 when a doctor named Alexander Fleming was studying influenza. He noticed that mould had accidentally formed in one of his petri dishes, killing off all the bacteria around it. This led to the discovery of penicillin, a “wonder drug” that could be used to treat infections. It saved countless lives. But when Fleming won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1945, he warned that it had a fatal flaw: over time, if not used properly, bacteria could become resistant to it.
He was right. More antibiotics have been developed since then. But every time, bacteria have quickly learnt to resist the new drugs. Bacteria which are resistant to multiple antibiotics are known as “superbugs”.
What is being done about it?
In January 2019, the UK’s health secretary, Matt Hancock, warned that the threat of antibiotic resistance could send Britain back to the “dark ages”. In fact, he said it was “as big a danger to humanity as climate change or warfare”.
He unveiled a plan to “contain and control” the problem by 2040. It included reducing the use of antibiotics in humans by 15% and encouraging drug companies to produce new medicines.
The same month, genes linked to antibiotic-resistant superbugs were found in soil samples taken from one of the most remote parts of the Arctic. Although humans in the area had not been infected, it showed how quickly – and how far – the bugs can spread.
Is it really an “apocalypse”?
That was the word used by England’s chief medical officer, Sally Davies, when she warned about this in 2017.
Experts fear a world in which antibiotics stop working altogether. That would mean that simple cuts and grazes could be life-threatening if they became infected. Life-saving operations would become far riskier. Even childbirth would become a potential deathtrap for women again.
That is what Matt Hancock meant when he talked about the return of the “dark ages”.
How likely is that?
For now, antibiotics are still able to kill off most infections. But Public Health England has warned that failure to tackle drug resistance could lead to 10 million deaths worldwide by 2050. Already, around 25,000 people are thought to die from drug-resistant infections in Europe each year. And in England, drug-resistant blood infections have increased by 35% in the last four years.
Where does resistance come from?
Bacteria are very good at survival, and they quickly learn to adapt to new drugs. This happens even faster when people take too many antibiotics.
The problem is that some doctors have given them to patients for infections that would clear up naturally after a few days, or even cold viruses that antibiotics can’t treat.
Antibiotics are also often given to farm animals to speed up their growth and prevent diseases. The more antibiotics are used, the more likely that resistance occurs.
But the solution is not just about cutting down on antibiotics. It is also about stopping the spread of infections by improving sanitation around the world. Those superbug genes found in the Arctic, for example? They were first identified in India in 2007-8, probably carried by sewage.
What can we do about it?
Part of the solution is global: drugs companies must develop new antibiotics while governments work to improve hygiene and sanitation, particularly in low-income countries.
Meanwhile, patients should not ask their doctors for antibiotics unless they really need them. And if they are prescribed, you should always finish the full course, even if you start to feel better.
- What is the biggest threat to humans: superbugs, climate crisis, or war?
- Produce a poster for the NHS that explains what antibiotics are, how they work, and when they should be used.
- Health secretary
- The government minister in charge of the UK’s health and social care. This person in this role also has responsibility for the National Health Service (NHS).
- Currently, drugs companies are paid based on the number of drugs they sell, which means they have an incentive to sell as many antibiotics as possible. Instead, the NHS will develop a system in which companies are paid based on how valuable the drugs are to doctors and the NHS. It hopes that this will encourage companies to develop new forms of antibiotics.
- Specifically, Svalbard, a group of Norwegian islands in the Arctic circle.
- Public Health England
- Part of the UK’s Department of Health and Social Care, PHE was set up to “improve the nation’s health and address inequalities”.
- Farm animals
- According to the Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture Alliance (RUMA), food-producing animals account for 37% of antibiotic use in the UK. However, antibiotic use in poultry decreased by 82% between 2012 and 2017 in the UK. Matt Hancock announced plans to reduce antibiotics’ use in animals by a further 25% by 2020.
- New antibiotics
- It has been 30 years since a new form of antibiotics became available.