We are in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic, yet some of Britain’s leading infection experts are quietly asking an astonishing question: are we forgetting a greater threat to humanity?
This threat comes from bacteria that learn together to resist our most powerful drugs, endangering our health – and lives.
The toll is dramatic. As many as 2,985 people in England died of antibiotic-resistant infections in 2018; and 60,788 patients were infected – an increase of nearly ten percent over the previous year.
This threat comes from bacteria that learn together to resist our most powerful drugs, endangering our health – and lives [File photo]
Last year, the total number of infections rose again, to 90,173, according to figures from NHS Digital. These indicate that antibiotic-resistant cases in England have risen by almost a third in the past four years.
The figures are part of a global pandemic. In the United States, more than 2.8 million people are diagnosed with an antibiotic-resistant infection each year, and 35,000 die.
So alarming is the emergence of antibiotic-resistant superbugs, experts warn that we need to prepare for a time when common conditions like strep throat, urinary tract infections and food poisoning become untreatable.
And NHS cancer experts have expressed concern that chemotherapy may not be an option for patients anytime soon, as it may make them too vulnerable to such infections.
Any deadly infectious outbreak is devastating, as we know with coronavirus. It has killed more than 44,000 in the UK and more than 530,000 worldwide since December. But some experts fear that the coronavirus will distract us from the dangers of antibiotic resistance.
Timothy Walsh, a professor of medical microbiology at Cardiff University, who recently received an OBE for his work on antibiotic resistance, told Good Health: “By most estimates, antibiotic resistance kills 800,000 people every year worldwide. Ten million people will be killed each year by 2050.
With current global efforts and funding, there may be a vaccine for Covid-19 by 2021, and it will likely be over in 18 months. I would hate to take away funding for the fight against antibiotic resistance, which is a long-term problem for all of us. ‘
Professor Walsh believes that several public responses to coronavirus (ie, alarm) and antibiotic-resistant bacteria (relatively smug) are because coronavirus appeared quickly, while super bacteria are “slow-burning.”
Lord O’Neill, chairman of the Chatham House think tank, which led a global assessment of antibiotic resistance by the UK government in 2016, tells Good Health, “I think the difference in responses reflects one of the huge societal challenges in life. Something that isn’t in the headlines every night doesn’t lead to dramatic action. ‘
Inappropriate use of antibiotics is often blamed for the emergence of resistant bacteria. Last year, a report in the Journal of Global Infectious Diseases mentioned excessive prescribing and agricultural overuse, along with poor quality antibiotics in the developing world – which do not kill bacteria – and over-the-counter medicines.
While efforts are being made worldwide to reduce antibiotic use, they risk being too little, too late.
Doctors now fear that antibiotic-resistant bacteria may stop chemotherapy for cancer patients. In February, a study of 100 NHS oncologists found that nearly half of the fears that super bacteria will make it viable.
This is because patients’ immune systems are weakened during treatment, so antibiotics are needed because patients cannot fight off without these bacterial infections.
But the emergence of superbugs means that chemotherapy can become too dangerous because it would mean exposing vulnerable patients to an unacceptably high risk of being colonized by deadly bacteria.
Doctors now fear that antibiotic-resistant bacteria may stop chemotherapy for cancer patients. In February, a survey of 100 NHS oncologists found that nearly half of fears that super bacteria will make it unviable [File photo]
The oncologists reported that about one in 20 of their patients already have an infection that did not respond to antibiotics.
They named the bacteria Staphylococcus, E. coli, and Pseudomonas as the most serious infectious threats (which can cause chronic treatment-resistant infections throughout the body).
Particularly concerned by Professor Walsh is the rapid worldwide spread of two bacterial genes, called MCR-1 and NDM-1, which give bacteria the strength to resist some of our strongest antibiotics, such as colistin.
The MCR-1 gene was first reported in China in 2015 in humans and pigs with E. coli infections. The antibiotic was routinely given to chickens and pigs in animal feed.
Researchers believe this stimulated genetic resistance to thrive in the animals and then infect people who ate their meat. Less than six months later, the MCR-1 gene appeared in bacteria grown in a patient in Pennsylvania. Her urinary tract was infected with antibiotic resistant E. coli. How she caught it remains a mystery. She had not traveled abroad or worked with animals.
MCR-1 has since been found in Salmonella, Klebsiella and various types of enterobacter bacteria, all of which cause infections in humans. In February, a Wyoming patient with a urinary tract infection was found to have a Klebsiella strain that had acquired the MCR-1 gene and became resistant to 16 antibiotics.
A similar problem arises with the NDM-1 gene, which allows bacteria to defeat a critical class of antibiotics called carbapenems. It was first identified in a Swedish patient who had a urinary tract infection of Klebsiella pneumoniae in India in 2008.
NDM-1 has now moved to other bacterial strains, such as E. coli. It is found in many countries, including the UK, US and Australia. Bacteria grow on every surface in the ocean, which is one way of spreading it around the world, a study in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin warns.
Filling the ocean with plastic creates billions of new habitats. Even worse, these plastics can be swallowed by fish and end up in the human food chain. This would increase the spread of antibiotic-caused infections.
We can be on our way to a world where sore throats can become deadly. In January, infectious disease scientists reported in the Journal of Clinical Microbiology how strains of Group A Streptococcus are increasingly resistant to antibiotics.
The bacteria cause up to a third of the sore throat in children and one in six in adults. Researchers warn that strep throat and necrotizing fasciitis (or carnivorous disease), both caused by Strep A bacteria, could be closer to gaining full resistance to penicillin and beta-lactam antibiotics.
“If this germ becomes truly resistant to these antibiotics, it would have a very serious impact on millions of children,” said James Musser, a professor of genomic medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College in the US, who led the study.
Another study, published in February, warns that Bordetella pertussis, the bacteria that causes whooping cough, is also becoming resistant to antibiotics. The infectious disease can kill newborns and young children.
Dr. Laurence Luu, a microbiologist at the University of New South Wales, Australia, who led the study, published in the journal Vaccine, says the bacteria also develop new genetic mutations that make them infect hosts faster and more efficiently.
And some strains change their composition so much that they can even infect people who have been inoculated against whooping cough because antibodies made by the vaccine don’t recognize them.
In March, European Union data marked another rapidly emerging threat: food poisoning bacteria are also increasingly evolving into resistant super bacteria.
Analysis of Salmonella and Campylobacter strains from sick patients shows that almost a third of infections are resistant to various antibiotics, including the important drug ciprofloxacin.
An obvious response to the problem is to develop new, more effective antibiotics. But no new antibiotics have been developed since the 1980s, and none seem to be on the horizon.
Lord O’Neill warns, “Big Pharma doesn’t seem excited about the prospect of developing new antibiotics, which is worrying.”
Professor Walsh says public funding is needed to ensure that new drugs save lives.
“We need an injection of money and to make drugs affordable and available to low-income countries,” he says.
Bacteria grow on every surface in the ocean, which is one way of spreading it around the world, a study in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin warns. Filling the ocean with plastic creates billions of new habitats [File photo]
Secrets of an A-list body: How to get the enviable physique of the stars
This week: Celine Dion’s tight waist.
Celine Dion shone onstage earlier this year in a tight, red dress, showing off her tight waist.
The French-Canadian singer has attributed ballet lessons to transforming her body since she discovered it last year.
The mom of three, 52, often trains with one of her dancers, Pepe, saying, “We stretch and we do the barre. I do this four times a week. ‘
What to try: The quadruple hip extension tightens the waist. Begin on all fours with knees and feet hip-width apart and hands below shoulders.
Tighten your abs. Lift your left leg and push the foot up to the ceiling. Lower your leg back to the starting position, then repeat and switch sides.
Do 12 reps on each side and two to three sets.
Celine Dion shone onstage earlier this year in a tight, red dress, showing off her tight waist