Today’s news report that Britain is facing a massive rise of a strain of the bacterium E.coli that is resistant to almost every antibiotic in our arsenal comes as little surprise to MRSA Action UK. In November 2008 our press release entitled “the rising threat from new superbugs” heeded the warning of the first outbreak of a mutant strain of E.coli 026 on a dairy farm in the UK.
This new strain had a heavy relationship with the overuse of antibiotics in farm animals, creating a bacterium that was easily transferable from animals to humans. This latest report indicates that in spite of our warnings governments, both present and past, seem to have buried their heads in the sand.
In all our meetings with officials from the Department of Health, Health Ministers and, with the Chair of DEFRA three years ago, their only response to our concerns was that “we have this on our radar”, three years later it would seem that is all they have done.
In the 1960s Professor Michael Swann led an Independent Advisory Committee to examine antimicrobial resistance and the consequences for both human and animal health. Although the Swann Report was in fact based on less than full scientific certainty, it created much debate and cries for more research on antibiotic resistance. The Swann Report was an early warning on the risk of antimicrobial resistance, and it produced a competent microbiology assessment that foresaw possible adverse consequences of antibiotic resistance. It is strange that the report was clearly precautionary, although the word precaution was never actually used in the report.
Even as late as the 1990s subsequent scientific research show that transferable resistance was not just restricted to certain bacteria, but was far more widespread within microbes and that resistant genes can move not only between related bacterial species, but also between unrelated species as well.
The emergence of NDM-1 which is totally resistant to the most powerful antibiotics in medicine, carbapenems, is now associated with E.coli and Klebsiella pneumonia and has the ability to transfer resistance with impunity from one bacterium to another, and whilst medical science says it cannot transfer to unrelated bacteria, past research has shown this to be unfounded.
Whilst we welcome Dame Sally Davies, the Government’s Chief Medical Officer, pledge of £500,000 to fund research into the threat, this is the equivalent of a drop in the ocean on what is required to research and develop new discoveries to fight bacterial infections.
It is has been said, that antibiotic resistance is to medical science as big a threat to human health as climate change is to the environment, and whilst governments across the world have come to agreements on tackling climate change, the same ethos has to be used to fight antibacterial resistance. Failure to do so will lead to an outcome where human health will begin to deteriorate in life expectancy, treatments available, and return us back to the days before Alexander Fleming’s discovery of the golden bullets - antibiotics.
Politicians have to face up to the facts and face them head on instead of ignoring the problem hoping it will go away or become someone else’s problem, and sadly it will – their children’s and ours.