The rise in drug-resistant infections signals a coming antibiotic "apocalypse" more serious than the threat of global warming, according to the chief medical officer for Britain's Department of Health.
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"It is clear that we might not ever see global warming," Dame Sally Davies recently said before members of Parliament (MPs), adding that "the apocalyptic scenario is that when I need a new hip in 20 years I'll die from a routine infection because we've run out of antibiotics."
At a science and technology committee meeting, Davies discussed the rise in drug-resistant gonorrhea, noting that about 80% of cases of the sexually transmitted infection are now resistant to antibiotics. In addition, Davies said that there are about 440,000 new cases of drug-resistant tuberculosis every year, resulting in 150,000 deaths worldwide.
"There is a broken market model for making new antibiotics, so it's an empty pipeline, so as they become resistant, these bugs, which they would naturally but we're breeding them in because of the way antibiotics are used, there will not be new antibiotics to come," Davies told the MPs.
Davies is not the first to warn of a post-antibiotic world.
World Health Organization Director-General Margaret Chan has warned that the antibiotic "pipeline is virtually dry, especially for gram-negative bacteria. The cupboard is nearly bare."
In the "post-antibiotic era" that Chan fears, "[t]hings as common as strep throat or a child's scratched knee could once again kill."
The rise in drug-resistant infections is exacerbated by global travel, says University of Aberdeen microbiologist Hugh Pennington. He notes that a growing number of people travel for health care, which can expose them to drug-resistant illnesses.
"We have to be aware that we aren't going to have new wonder drugs coming along because there just aren't any," Pennington told BBC News. He urges officials to dedicate resources to infection surveillance, supplies needed to address the problem, and public education.
Davies said she will outline possible solutions in her annual report in March (Gallagher, BBC News, 1/24; Osborne, International Business Times, 1/24).
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