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MRSA Bacteria. Credit: Askdoctork.com

Antibiotic Resistance ‘Bigger Threat Than Cancer?’

Antibiotic resistance is absolutely storming current news with a bold statement by UK Chancellor George Osborne that ‘antibiotic resistance will become “an even greater threat to mankind than cancer” without global action. Osborne warns delegates at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) meeting in Washington that there will be an “enormous economic cost” posed by increasing antibiotic resistance by 2050.

Credit: MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology

Credit: MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology

Cumulative reports of elevated morbidity, mortality rates and the rise of treatment costs over the last decade are of several reasons why antibiotic resistance is considered to be one of the biggest threats globally to public health. It is estimated that potentially 10 million people will die as a result by 2050, overtaking the current mortality rates of approx 8 million from cancer.

Antibiotic resistance arises as a result of natural selection, which creates resistant strains capable of being indifferent to the effects of antimicrobial drugs. The resistant traits are a result of the DNA in micro-organisms mutating, and subsequently being exchanged at the molecular level. The prevalent evolution of these resistant strains and increasing virulence poses a real public health risk, with fears from the World Health Organisation (WHO) that we are rapidly veering our way towards a “post-antibiotic era in which common infections and minor injuries, which have been treatable for decades, can once again kill”. As Osborne has emphasized, the problem does and will ultimately create a knock-on effect economically. Prolonged illness drains hospital resources and increases the need for more expensive treatments for long term patient care. It is estimated that there will be a global reduction in GDP (gross domestic product) by up to 3.5%, which translates into approximately £70 trillion worth of costs from antibiotic resistance.

Credit: CMSP Custom Medical Stock Photo / Getty Images

Credit: CMSP Custom Medical Stock Photo / Getty Images

Ouch – economically and physically. So how on earth have we gotten to this stage? We know how resistance arises, but why?

Sadly, public negligence and stupidity. The need for antibiotics and the WANT for them is completely unbalanced. The evolution of these new drug-resistant strains is driven by the misuse and over-prescription of antimicrobial drugs. How many of us are guilty of seeing our GP with a cold or the flu demanding a prescription, when realistically we could have just ‘manned up’  and dealt with it? Of course it would be inaccurate and naive to assume this is the sole reason for the evolution of drug resistance traits, as these can mutations can still persist even in the absence of drugs (as discussed by Yang et al., 2015).

Unfortunately this is also extended into the farming industry, with farm animals accounting for 40% of antibiotic use in the UK. These are routinely being used in growth promotion or for disease prevention of animals being farmed in unsanitary conditions and close confinement. Both arguably very unnecessary practices which relate to a whole host of animal health and welfare issues. But that’s plunging even further down the political rabbit hole.

Credit: PETA

Credit: PETA

Currently the UK is in the beginning stages of implementing plans in an attempt to tackle this problem, based on prior suggestions by treasury minister and economist Lord O’Neill. One will be to create financial incentives for pharmaceutical companies that successfully develop new marketable antibiotics. There are also talks of increasing government funding for early stage scientific research, as well as thorough monitoring of the problem at hand. We can expect a review from O’Neill in a months time on these suggestions, and hopefully then we’ll be a lot closer to actually doing something. As Osborne has stated, ‘the cost of doing nothing is too great’.

In the meantime, it would be well advised to make it our individual responsibility to take charge of our own health. We can do this by treating the symptoms of an illness, for example by using recommended over-the-counter medications as opposed to immediately seeking out antibiotics. Don’t use them where they are not needed. *Analogy alert* If someone is talking loudly on the train to the point of being annoying, you don’t NEED to go over to them and punch them in the face. Just put your headphones in.

Credit: NHS

Credit: NHS


Get well soon guys, without antibiotics.

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