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Life-saving drugs may soon become useless, experts warn as 19 untreatable superbugs are discovered in the last decade

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 11/09/2019 Henry Bodkin

Microbiologist examining growth of MRSA bacteria on a culture plate © Rodolfo Parulan Jr Microbiologist examining growth of MRSA bacteria on a culture plate

Nineteen untreatable superbugs have been discovered in the last decade, government experts have revealed, as they warn of an approaching “tipping point” with life-saving drugs becoming useless.

The mutant varieties of germs such as MRSA and gonorrhoea were able to withstand all recognised antibiotics.

Infected patients survived only because doctors used unlicensed drugs in experimental combinations to keep them alive.

Officials estimate that approximately 5,000 patients die due to antimicrobial resistance (AMR) each year.

However, last night Public Health England (PHE) warned that unless the resistance crisis is addressed, the toll could become far worse, with ineffective antibiotics such as colistin and carbapenems ushering in pandemics of untreatable disease.

Prescription medication © Getty Prescription medication

AMR occurs when the DNA of bacteria mutates, or where different types of bacteria acquire DNA off each other.

PHE confirmed its labs have received 1,300 samples of bacteria containing one of the 19 new resistance types from across the UK in the past 10 years.

Man taking medication © Getty Man taking medication

Dr Susan Hopkins, deputy director for the National Infection Service, said: “The doomsday scenario is that we can’t treat patients.”

She added that doctors need to stop prescribing unnecessary antibiotics, which fuels resistance.

Among the more common types of disease caused by the new superbugs were urinary tract infections, sexually transmitted diseases, kidney problems and bowel disease.

The UK is in the top quarter of European countries for reducing antibiotic use, however it lags behind countries such as Germany and The Netherlands, where prescription rates are roughly a third lower.

Professor Alistair Hay, a primary care expert at Bristol University, said GPs in the UK are still giving out antibiotics too freely.

“Primary care is a key contributor to antimicrobial resistance, there’s no question about that,” he said.

“And in terms of the European experience and our colleagues in Europe, we could do better.”

Rows of pill bottles on shelves in pharmacy © Getty Rows of pill bottles on shelves in pharmacy

In addition to the rise of superbugs, infection experts have detected 12 new diseases in the UK in the last decade, PHE revealed.

These include the now relatively common swine flu, as well as Middle East respiratory syndrome, Crimean Congo haemorrhagic fever and monkeypox.

PHE is launching a new five-year strategy to combat infectious disease,

Professor Chris Whitty, the incoming new Chief Medical Officer, told the organisation’s annual conference: “Despite our arsenal of vaccines and antimicrobials, infectious disease remains a real threat to public health.

Doctor preparing to inject medication © Getty Doctor preparing to inject medication

“This new strategy will enable us to detect and prevent new threats as they arise, keeping us safe from potentially devastating consequences.”

AMR is proving difficult to tackle partly because no new classes of antibiotic have come on the market for several decades.

It means that, over time, bacteria “learn” to overcome a growing proportion of the available drugs.

In 2016 a major government-commissioned report recommended huge financial incentives to encourage pharmaceutical companies to develop new antibiotics, however little visible progress is being made.

Professor Sharon Peacock, director of the National Infection Service, said: “Infectious diseases don’t stand still.

“Bacteria are locked in an evolution race with antibiotics, constantly evolving new ways to avoid their impact.

“While the number of infections that don't respond to any antibiotics is currently low in this country, this is not the case elsewhere and we have to act now to detect and control emerging threats to our health, before our treatment options run dry."


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