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9th February 2016

The superbugs are coming

Have you ever taken antibiotics for a viral infection? Every time we misuse antibiotics we take another step backwards – undoing decades of medical progress and risking the lives of seriously ill people in our communities.

Meet Sharon Brennan. Sharon has cystic fibrosis – an inherited chronic lung disease that makes it hard for her to breathe. People like Sharon are on the frontline line in the war on superbugs. She has had a lung transplant but a bacterial infection could kill her.

That’s because many of the live-saving antibiotics used for decades to treat vulnerable patients like Sharon are becoming useless. The rise of superbugs – bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics – threatens to send us back to the medical Dark Ages.

Antibiotics are described by the European Centre for Disease Prevention & Control (ECDC) as one of the greatest breakthroughs in medical history. Yet experts also warn that our last lines of defences are falling one by one.

For Sharon, this is not an abstract theory. She has already lost four friends who had cystic fibrosis and she knows that if her newly-transplanted lungs become infected it will be “pretty much game over”.

But it is not just people with chronic diseases that need to fear the end of the antibiotic era. It would be a major blow to all of us, making our hospitals much less safe.

“Those of us living with cystic fibrosis are at the vanguard of how antibiotic resistant will play out,” she wrote in The Guardian. “If we are not careful, medical advances will go into reverse.”

What can you do?

This is a slow-burning global emergency that may only be fully realised until when it’s too late. The World Health Organisation has described antimicrobial resistance (AMR) as “a crisis that must be managed with the utmost urgency”.

But there are moves to fight back against the superbugs.

The WHO Global Action Plan on Antimicrobial Resistance, published last year, sets out a range of priorities including raising public awareness, better sanitation and research into new medicines, diagnostics and vaccines.

This echoes the position in Europe. The European Commission is currently working to update the 2011 EU Action Plan on Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR). That plan highlighted the need for “diagnostic tools that include tests for quick and accurate identification of pathogenic microorganisms and/or for determining their sensitivity to antimicrobials”.

That may sound complex but the logic is deceptively simple. Doctors need a rapid test that can tell them whether the cause of their patient’s illness is a virus or a bacterium. As the crisis grows more acute, the European Parliament has suggested that antibiotics should be used only where bacterial infection has been diagnosed.

If it is a bacterial infection, sophisticated new diagnostics could help doctors decide which antibiotic will work best.

Take tuberculosis, for example. Multi-drug resistant TB is a huge challenge for our hospitals. The disease is caused by various strains of bacteria and treatment is a long, and often unpleasant, course of antibiotics. If doctors could swiftly find out which form of TB is infecting their patient, they could choose the right antibiotic first time, every time.

EU-funded studies – supported under FP7 and Horizon 2020 – are helping to build the scientific knowledge that could unlock the new treatments and faster diagnostics required to beat the bugs.

In the meantime, people like Sharon need all of us to play our part:

We can also do a lot to help by not demanding antibiotics from our GP when in fact we are just feeling rough from a viral cold (antibiotics are only effective against bacteria), making sure we finish the whole drug course when we do take them, and by never lending them to anyone else.”

Most of us have grown up with antibiotics; we take them for granted. If one doesn’t work, we presume the pharmacist has another that will. Unless we change our ways and make some major scientific breakthroughs, we may lose the battle against superbugs.

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