By Jenny Hope
Last updated at 12:18 AM on 18th November 2011
A deadly wave of superbugs resistant to even the most powerful antibiotics is set to threaten patients – with no new drugs on the horizon, warns a leading UK authority.
Over-use of existing medicines has been fuelled by complacency among governments and the public who fail to recognise the looming crisis, according to the British Society for Antimicrobial Therapy.
It says the ‘demise’ of antibacterial drug discovery by large pharmaceutical companies – deterred by poor profits and red tape – has largely gone unnoticed but will lead to untreatable infections.
Professor Laura Piddock, of the School of Immunity and Infection at Birmingham University and president of the British Society for Antimicrobial Therapy, said there is no sense of urgency about the situation because we have become so accustomed to getting antibiotics when we need them.
In a hard-hitting article in The Lancet Infectious Diseases journal, she warns the world is being pushed towards the ‘unthinkable scenario of untreatable infections’.
She said: ‘When patients are denied treatment with a new cancer drug because of its expense, there is public outrage despite the possibility of extending life by only a few weeks.
‘Antibiotics are not perceived as essential to health or the practice of medicine, despite such agents saving lives so that individuals can live for many years after infection.’
She added: ‘It’s impossible to say how many people will be affected, and whether it will be days, weeks, months or years, but it’s going to happen – there will definitely be people that will get untreatable infections.’
The warning comes as the Health Protection Agency released a survey showing half of patients visiting their doctor with respiratory infections still expect to get an antibiotic.
One in four thought the drugs worked on most coughs and colds, even though they are ineffective against viral illnesses.
Prof Piddock said patients still thought of antibiotics like ‘Smarties’ and didn’t realise they were as important as cancer drugs.
Antibiotic resistance was recognised as one of the biggest threats to health, with little in the pipeline from drug companies, she added.
Industry interest has waned because of the lack of profit from short-course treatments, cheap drug prices and regulatory barriers that make it difficult and expensive to run patient trials.
Professor Piddock said a ‘log jam’ in antibiotic research must be broken, with less red tape and different kinds of trials that would cut the time taken to test new drugs.
She called for philanthropists such as Bill Gates, who has revitalised vaccine therapy, to head a ‘globally joined-up’ movement to find new antibiotics.
Professor Dame Sally Davies, the Government’s chief medical officer, said new guidance going out to doctors and nurses will urge them to ‘think hard’ before prescribing antibiotics.
She said: ‘Many antibiotics are currently prescribed and used when they don’t need to be – meaning antibiotics lose their effectiveness at a rapidly increasing rate.
‘It is important we use antibiotics in the right way if we are to get the best outcome for the patient, slow down resistance and make sure these important medicines continue to stay effective for ourselves and for future generations.’