UK to lead superbug fight - Cameron

Britain will lead the fightback against antibiotic-resistant superbugs threatening to send medicine "back into the dark ages", David Cameron has said.

David Cameron says resistance to antibiotics is a "very real and worrying threat"
David Cameron says resistance to antibiotics is a "very real and worrying threat"

The Prime Minister said resistance to antibiotics was a "very real and worrying threat" and could lead to a future in which currently treatable injuries and ailments could prove fatal.

As part of the effort to address the issue an international group of experts will aim to stimulate the development of a "new generation of antibiotics", The Times reported.

"This is not some distant threat but something happening right now," Mr Cameron told the newspaper. "If we fail we are looking at an almost unthinkable scenario where antibiotics no longer work and we are cast back into the dark ages of medicine where treatable infections and injuries will kill once again.

"That simply cannot be allowed to happen and I want to see a stronger, more coherent global response."

Former Goldman Sachs chief economist Jim O'Neill will lead the international expert group and has been asked to consider how governments would pay pharmaceutical companies to produce drugs even if they were rarely used.

The group will also consider how poorer countries can be encouraged to improve control of existing antibiotics.

The Prime Minister told The Times: " I've been listening to the scientific advice that I get, and the network of advisers we have are all saying this is one of the most serious health problems the world faces.

"For many of us we only know a world where infections or sicknesses can be quickly remedied by a visit to the doctor and a course of antibiotics.

"This great British discovery has kept our families safe for decades, while saving billions of lives around the world.

"But that protection is at risk as never before. Resistance to antibiotics is now a very real and worrying threat."

He added: "When we've had these problems in the past, whether it is how we tackle HIV and Aids, how it is possible to lead the world and get rid of diseases like polio, Britain has taken a lead and I think it is right we take a lead again."

The Prime Minister raised the issue privately with US president Barack Obama and German chancellor Angela Merkel during the G7 summit last month.

The initial £500,000 cost of the work will be met by the Wellcome Trust, whose director Jeremy Farrar said: "Drug-resistant bacteria, viruses and parasites are driving a global health crisis.

"It threatens not only our ability to treat deadly infections, but almost every aspect of modern medicine: from cancer treatment to Caesarean sections, therapies that save thousands of lives every day rely on antibiotics that could soon be lost.

"We are failing to contain the rise of resistance, and failing to develop new drugs to replace those that no longer work. We are heading for a post-antibiotic age.

"This is not just a scientific and medical challenge, but an economic and social one too. I am thus delighted that an economist of the stature of Jim O'Neill has agreed to investigate these issues, with an eye on the incentives, regulatory systems and behavioural changes that will be required to resolve them.

"The Wellcome Trust is proud to fund and host Jim and his team as they conduct this vital work.

"Drug-resistant infection is one of the most urgent challenges of our time. It demands the attention of world leaders and international action, which is why it is encouraging that David Cameron is taking the issue so seriously and giving it the profile it deserves."

Professor Dame Sally Davies, the chief medical officer for England, said: "We must act now on a global scale to slow down antimicrobial resistance.

"In Europe, at least 25,000 people a year already die from infections which are resistant to our drugs of last resort. New antibiotics made by the biotech and pharmaceutical industry will be central to resolving this crisis which will impact on all areas of modern medicine.

"I am delighted to see the Prime Minister taking a global lead by commissioning this review to help new antibiotics to be developed and brought to patients effectively."

Dame Sally was asked on BBC Breakfast about the conditions that could become life-threatening in the face of antibiotic resistance.

"They are infections caused by bacteria - and that can start from a scratch on the hand, or happen because you have cancer and you have been treated and your immune system is not so strong, so then you get an infection," she said.

"We carry two kilos of bacteria on our bodies, that is healthy, but they can infect us if our immune systems are not so good, let alone the bacteria in the environment."

She said she agreed with the statement by Mr Cameron that the world could be cast back into the "dark ages" of medicine over the issue. Effective antibiotics had been steadily lost over time, she said, and yet new ones were not coming on to the market to replace them.

"Since the late 80s we have had no really new significant classes of antibiotics, so the cupboard is pretty empty," she said.

She urged patients and parents of children to listen to their GP when he or she does not believe antibiotics should be prescribed.

Asked about how to avoid infection, she said: "Clearly vaccinations are very important because they prevent infection, hygiene is terrifically important, we pass infection by not washing our hands properly, not practising good food hygiene.

"I would encourage everyone to do all of that, not obsessional, but just good washing of hands before using food, after using food and particularly, of course, after going to the lavatory, because we have good evidence that people don't do that well, particularly men, as a matter of fact."