We need action to prevent post-antibiotic disaster

This week is World Antibiotics Awareness week and MPs debated the problems caused by antimicrobial resistance (or AMR). Theresa Villiers, MP for Barnet, took part in the debate and highlighted the horrific scenario which would arise if more antibiotics stop working. In her speech in the Westminster Hall debating chamber, Theresa said:

“Antimicrobial resistance is a significant and increasing threat to public health. It is estimated that in the US and Europe alone, antimicrobial-resistant infections currently cause at least 50,000 deaths per year. By 2050, 10 million people a year could be dying as a result of AMR.

The UK Government has played a world-leading role on this issue. David Cameron was the first leader to put this issue firmly on the international agenda when he launched the review led by Lord O’Neill in 2014.

A global action plan on AMR was published by the World Health Organisation in 2015. But despite the excellent work of the UK Government and commitments on AMR by many other countries around the world, I’m worried that progress is not fast enough, given the seriousness of the risks we now face.

Antibiotics have saved countless lives in the 80 years since Alexander Fleming’s historic discovery. Ever since their use became widespread in the 1940s, they have ensured that life threatening infections can be treated effectively and operations that would previously have been very dangerous can be performed safely. The use of antibiotics has probably extended our life expectancy by around 20 years.

The consequences of antimicrobial resistance are often portrayed as being a future threat but the WHO is clear that antimicrobial resistance has already been detected in all parts of the world. Across the EU member states, it is estimated that AMR currently costs €1.5 billion a year in healthcare costs and productivity losses.

But these rather dry-sounding points hide the scale of the horror we could be facing. The O’Neill Review concluded that over 300 million people are expected to die prematurely because of drug resistance over the next 35 years.

We could see a return to the days when straight forward operations and minor injuries could routinely result in death and childhood mortality was commonplace.

The Chief Medical Officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, has described AMR as a ‘catastrophic threat’. She has warned of “post-antibiotic apocalypse” where 40 per cent of the population die prematurely from infections we cannot treat.

In her view this could amount to nothing less than “the end of modern medicine”. So it is vital that we take action to address the threats we now face.

We need to improve infection control, not only in our healthcare facilities here, but around the world, and I would urge the Minister to make AMR and improving sanitation a priority in for UK aid overseas.

We need to bring an end to over-prescribing of antibiotics in human medicine. That means doing much more to raise public awareness of this issue so that people understand the consequences of demanding antibiotics from their GP even where there isn’t clear evidence that they are needed.

It’s also imperative that we develop better more accurate ways to diagnose conditions so we no longer see so many instances where antibiotics are used in cases of viruses and other conditions where they are not needed.

It is crucial that we take action to end the over-use of antibiotics in agriculture. According to a letter by senior medics to the DEFRA Secretary in 2016, an astonishing 90% of all UK ventinary antibiotic use is for mass medication of groups of farm animals.

In my view, that means our post-Brexit farm support policies must discourage the kind of intensive farming practices where animals are kept in overcrowded, unnatural and unhealthy conditions leading to routine prophylactic use of antibiotics. Instead we should promote health oriented methods of farming. It is perfectly possible to maintain a successful agriculture sector whilst also significantly cutting back on the use of antibiotics. The example set by poultry sector in reducing antibiotic use shows what can be achieved.

We need to invest in research into new drugs, to expand the pool of antibiotics which continue to be effective. We should seek a new approach to rewarding and incentivising medical research in this area as means to drive forward that research.

And we need to significantly improve our knowledge and understanding of antibiotic use and the threat posed by AMR, both in this country and around the world.

The 2016 O’Neill report made ten recommendations and I would ask the Minister today to update us on progress in delivering on each one of those.

I would also urge him to make tackling antimicrobial resistance a key element of our public health policy and I hope the Government will press NHS England and local CCGs to make it a focus of their Sustainability and Transformation plans.

Moreover, tackling AMR should be an important element of our foreign policy and our international aid budget, because it is clear that we cannot solve this problem without concerted action on a global basis. 

In conclusion, Mr Chairman, we have many impassioned debates on different subjects in this House, all of which seem worthwhile and important at the time. But there can be few issues of such great significance as the one we are considering this morning.

If future generations find their lives blighted by the “post-antibiotic apocalypse” predicted by the Chief Medical Officer, they will look back on debates like this and their judgment will not be kind if we fail to act.

And so I would say to the Minister and to each and every member of this House, we must take action now on antimicrobial resistance if we are to safeguard the health and wellbeing of future generations. And I would urge the Minister to take that message back to his/her colleagues in Government.”