28 Oct Superbugs spark fears of ‘antibiotic apocalypse’
Scientists are warning that the world could be in for an “antibiotic apocalypse”, with a rise in drug-resistant superbugs killing 10 million people every year by 2050. Science reporter Jamie Morton discusses the issue with one of New Zealand’s best known microbiologists, Dr Siouxsie Wiles of the University of Auckland.
Q. What has prompted these fresh concerns and are the fears real?
A. The fears are definitely real, and the latest wave of media stories are because Lord Jim O’Neill just published his report on the topic, which was commissioned by the UK Prime Minister David Cameron.
We’ve also just had a report of the first US case of a person infected with a bacteria resistant to colistin, an old antibiotic with nasty side effects that is now only used as a last resort.
While the fear is that we will soon be living in a world with no effective antibiotics, in reality some patients are already living in that world, infected with untreatable resistant superbugs.
Q. We’ve also seen Lord O’Neill call for bans on the widespread use of antibiotics on animals. What’s the connection here?
A. For his report, Lord O’Neill was tasked with coming up with some concrete actions to tackle the issue of antibiotic resistance internationally.
Antibiotics have been widely used agriculturally in some countries for two main reasons: as growth promoters — to speed up the time it takes to get the meat to market — and to prevent infections, which is important when animals are factory farmed.
The problem with using antibiotics in this way is that antibiotic-resistant superbugs that develop on farms, don’t stay there.
And because people can often carry antibiotic-resistant superbugs without them causing disease, these superbugs can easily move from country to country.