Antibiotics – for decades the wonder drug of modern medicine – could become virtually useless as new 'superbugs' develop which are highly resistant to all current antibiotic treatments.
That is the warning from scientists who say our over-reliance on antibiotics, often prescribed when not needed, has led us to the edge of a medical precipice.
According to the results of a new global Review on Antimicrobial Resistance, so-called 'superbugs' could kill someone in the world every three seconds by 2050 unless we act now. It calls for much tighter worldwide restrictions on the use of current antibiotics, and for massive investment in medical research to develop new types of antibiotic.
Lord Jim O'Neill, who led the global review, said it was vital that we stop handing out antibiotics like sweets, as the more we use them the less effective they will become. Their use is not just restricted to human medicine; in some agricultural practices they are used to boost the growth of animals rather than to treat infections.
In the USA, 70% of antibiotics sold by weight are for use in animals, but the more widely they are used, the faster new and highly resistant bacteria develop. If these new superbugs become prevalent, medicine will be defenceless against them. In fact, new bacteria have already been discovered which are impervious to the current 'last resort' antibiotic – colistin – which medics turn to when all else fails.
Any infection, from something as simple as a cut finger, could become fatal. Operations which are currently routine, such as joint replacements or having an appendix removed, would become a life or death gamble. Even childbirth could again become a major medical risk through the fear of untreatable infection.
In short, medicine could be plunged back into the dark ages, warn the authors of the new review.
No new class of antibiotic has been discovered since the 1980s, with pharmaceutical companies reluctant to invest heavily in research and development of new drugs while current antibiotics are still in such huge worldwide demand. Even if a new antibiotic was developed, it would have to be kept locked away for use only in emergencies, hugely limiting any financial rewards for the company producing it.
Because of this, the new review recommends massive financial incentives for companies which develop new antibiotics, but some critics say government scientists – not motivated by the need to make a profit – should take on the crucial work.
"If we don't solve the problem we are heading to the dark ages," warned Lord O'Neill. "We will have a lot of people dying."