The threat posed by antibiotic resistance should be ranked alongside terrorism on a list of threats to the nation, the government’s chief medical officer has said.
The problem is a “ticking timebomb” and should be put on the government’s national risk register - which also includes “catastrophic terrorist attacks” and other civil emergencies, Professor Dame Sally Davies said.
She published her annual report today.
Routine operations such as hip replacements could become deadly in just 20 years time if we lose the ability to fight infection, she said.
Dame Sally said the problem is “as important as climate change for the world” and urged the government to raise the issue when meeting political leaders at the G8 summit in London next month.
Dame Sally sets out a call for action about how to tackle the “catastrophic threat”.
She called for better protection of our current stock of antibiotics, better incentives for the pharmaceutical industry to develop new drugs and asked ministers to ensure the issue is placed on the register.
The register sets out an assessment of the likelihood and potential impact of a range of different risks that may affect the UK.
It is also designed to increase awareness about the types of threats and help government, individuals and other organisations to think about their own preparedness.
Her report states: “There is a need for politicians in the UK to prioritise antimicrobial resistance as a major area of concern, including on the national risk register (specifically the National Security Risk Assessment) and pushing for action internationally as well as in local healthcare services.
“Antimicrobial resistance is a ticking time-bomb not only for the UK but also for the world.
“We need to work with everyone to ensure the apocalyptic scenario of widespread antimicrobial resistance does not become a reality.
“This threat is arguably as important as climate change for the world.”
Dame Sally said: “Antimicrobial resistance poses a catastrophic threat. If we don’t act now, any one of us could go into hospital in 20 years for minor surgery and die because of an ordinary infection that can’t be treated by antibiotics.
“And routine operations like hip replacements or organ transplants could be deadly because of the risk of infection.
“That’s why governments and organisations across the world, including the World Health Organisation and G8, need to take this seriously.
“This is not just about government action. We need to encourage more innovation in the development of antibiotics - over the past two decades there has been a discovery void around antibiotics, meaning diseases have evolved faster than the drugs to treat them.”
She said that there has been a “discovery void” in the field since 1987 and pharmaceutical companies need to be incentivised to develop new antibiotics.
“We have also been waiting for the next new antibiotic to come along and treat those resistant cases but the pipeline is drying up,” she said.
“There are no new classes of antibiotics in the pipelines across the world and there are very few in development.
“That’s because we have not, as a global society, incentivised producing antibiotics. We have market failure and we really need to do something about this.”
In addition to encouraging the development of new drugs, the report highlights that looking after the current stock of antibiotics is equally important.
This means using better hygiene measures to prevent infections, prescribing fewer antibiotics and making sure they are only prescribed when needed.
The chief medical officer also said that more action is needed to tackle the next generation of healthcare associated infections, including new strains of pneumonia-causing klebsiella, which will be harder to treat.
She said the issue should also be considered by the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs because around 50 per cent of antibiotics used in the UK are given to animals.
She added that the issue is “key for the economy” because infection - including NHS costs and people taking time off work when ill - is already estimated to cost England £30 billion a year.
The Department of Health said it will soon publish the UK Antimicrobial Resistance Strategy setting out a five-year action plan aiming to address the issue.
Professor Nigel Brown, president of the Society for General Microbiology, said: “Professor Dame Sally Davies rightly flags the issue of antimicrobial resistance to be of national and international concern.
“Urgent action is required by microbiologists and other scientists to identify and produce new antibiotics, and to tackle the problem of antibiotic resistance and its transmission.”
Professor Christopher Thomas, professor of molecular genetics at the University of Birmingham, said: “Any reassessment of antimicrobial resistance that results in it being increased as a public health priority will help us not only enforce the immediate actions that can prevent the spread of resistance but also invest in research into new ways to combat the threat it poses.
“While better surveillance, hygiene and restricted use of antibiotics can slow the spread of resistance we also need new ways to kill resistant bacteria or reduce their carriage of resistance genes.
“Novel approaches that might have appeared unrealistic a few years ago need to be explored if they hold a chance of helping us tackle this issue.”