World must act now to fight the spread of superbugs
Radical measures may be needed as threat posed by drug-resistant infections is one of the most serious facing the planet
The global superbug file is bulging with new entries, the latest from Hong Kong’s Hospital Authority after a sustained surge of a particular drug-resistant type, from a bacterial family known as CRE and CPE, linked to increasing use of “big gun” antibiotics. This follows a report last year that the same germ was on the rise in the US, where scientists have dubbed it the “phantom menace” because it has been found to carry DNA with an enzyme that breaks down antibiotics.
Last month, a European conference of microbiologists was told that a newly discovered antibiotic-resistant gene capable of transferring easily between bacteria, a key element in the emergence of new superbugs, has been found living in the gut of healthy humans. Dubbed mcr-1, it was first identified in China last November and has since been discovered in livestock, water, meat and vegetables in several countries.
Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, the HA is stepping up efforts to curb CPE after cases of it surged from 19 in 2011 to 134 last year following the increasing use of “big gun” antibiotics to save patients’ lives. Dr Dominic Tsang Ngai-chong, the HA’s chief infection control officer, said the big rise in CPE infections was a concern because the “choices of antibiotics [to treat it] are few”.
It is almost two years to the day since the World Health Organisation warned that a post-antibiotics era, in which they could no longer be relied on to save lives, is a real possibility. This week, the influential global Review on Antimicrobial Resistance said that unless the world acts now to meet the threat, superbugs will kill someone every three seconds by 2050. Recommended measures include paying pharmaceutical companies US$1 billion for every new antibiotic discovered, establishing a US$2 billion fund for early-stage research, new tests to prevent antibiotics being given when they will not work, and reducing the vast unnecessary antibiotic use in agriculture. These are radical steps. But the threat posed by drug-resistant infections is one of the most serious facing the world.