When Scotsman James Alexander Fleming developed penicillin in 1928, it was seen as a miracle cure which would deal with previously untreatable bacterial infections. Since that time a host of different antibiotics have been developed by scientists and successfully marketed by drug companies.
Routinely prescribed by doctors and vets, antibiotics are even added to animal and fish feed in order to ensure their continued health and the profits of the fish and animal farmers.
However, the age of the availability of a wide range of effective antibiotics is coming to an end.
According to the Washington Post in March 2012: “One of the most urgent global public health problems is the increasing capability of bacteria to resist antibiotic drugs. The crisis of antimicrobial resistance is particularly acute in hospitals, where superbugs able to resist multiple drugs have spawned. More than 70 per cent of the bacteria that cause hospital-related infections are already resistant to at least one type of antibacterial drug.
The spectre of a world without effective antibiotics has been looming for years, but recent evidence suggests that the superbugs are evolving ever faster. Meanwhile, the pipeline of new antibiotics is running dry, leaving some patients with no effective treatment for life-threatening disease.”
In March this year, Dame Sally Davis, the British Government’s Chief Medical officer warned that the “catastrophic threat” of antibiotic resistance should be seen as the medical equivalent of the war on terror or the issue of climate change. Failure to act could set healthcare and mortality rates back by 2 centuries unless urgent coordinated international action is taken.
Tom Chivers writing in the Telegraph said, ‘the Chief Medical Officer, who has very sensibly pointed out that resistance to antibiotics is a "ticking time bomb": unnecessary use of antibiotics, and the failure of drug companies to come up with new ones, could lead to a situation in which all the boring little infections that we thought we'd beaten suddenly become dangerous again. “If we don’t act now, any one of us could go into hospital in 20 years for minor surgery and die because of an ordinary infection that can’t be treated by antibiotics," she says, entirely accurately.’
Dame Sally and Chief Pharmaceutical Officer Keith Ridge are calling for tighter restrictions on antibiotic prescriptions by GPs and cooperation at international level.
The World Health Organisation has highlighted the causes of the problem which include: the lack of a comprehensive and coordinated response; weak or absent antimicrobial resistance surveillance and monitoring systems; inadequate systems to ensure quality and uninterrupted supply of medicines; inappropriate use of antimicrobial medicines, including in animal husbandry; poor infection prevention and control practices; insufficient diagnostic, prevention and therapeutic tools.
The mind boggles at a future where bacterial infections might be untreatable, and where only the brave or very foolish might be prepared to contemplate treatment as a hospital in patient. The tragedy is that this state of affairs has been self inflicted.
As a Christian, I’m an optimist because I know that God is in control. It’s when we turn to Him and put ourselves in His hands that miracles do happen. So let’s pray that our scientists and researchers receive wisdom and insight to remain one step ahead of the mutating superbugs.