‘Too late to stop biggest threat to modern medicine’ – Profmed CEO

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The overuse of antibiotics may have created an unstoppable health threat to humanity and medicine, says Profmed’s CEO and Principal Officer, Graham Anderson.

On Wednesday (21 September), all 193 member states of the United Nations signed a declaration to combat antimicrobial resistance (AMR), including antibiotic resistance, which they described as “the biggest threat to modern medicine”.

This is only the fourth time in the UN’s history that a health issue has been discussed at a General Assembly – the others being HIV, non-communicable diseases, and Ebola.

“We need to watch the outcomes of the UN meeting very closely,” says Anderson, “because antibiotic resistance is already an unstoppable and increasingly deadly issue across the world.”

He says the over prescription of antibiotics over the years is a major contributor to the presence of AMR, and that unnecessary prescriptions of antibiotics has been a problem in South Africa for decades.

“Antibiotics are only effective against bacterial infections, yet they are often prescribed for viral infections such as colds, flues and sore throats,” says Anderson.

“We’ve also seen patients ask for antibiotics from doctors and had their request granted, even when it’s unnecessary” he adds.

Global deaths arising from AMR could increase from 700 000 per year currently to 10 million per year by 2050, according to the Review on Antimicrobial Resistance, commissioned by the UK Government.

Anderson believes it may be too late to stop the threat of AMR, because there are no new molecules that he knows of that are being developed to fight strains of drug-resistant bacteria.

“This is particularly of concern in South Africa, as we suffer from relatively high levels of tuberculosis and other bacterial infections.”

AMR is also dangerous in the hospital environment, where bacterial infections are common. “Hospital-acquired infections are likely to become increasingly deadly as we simply won’t have the drugs to manage or combat them,” says Anderson.

He says that a coordinated global programme and the development of rapid diagnostic tools and new antibiotics are the best approaches for combatting AMR.

Snapshot of antibiotic resistance and AMR

  • “Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is the ability of a microorganism (like bacteria, viruses, and some parasites) to stop an antimicrobial (such as antibiotics, antivirals and antimalarials) from working against it. As a result, standard treatments become ineffective, infections persist and may spread to others.”[1]
  • Deaths arising from AMR could rise from 700 000 per year to 10 million per year by 2050.[2]
  • The meeting on AMR is only the fourth time in the UN’s history that a health-related issue has been discussed at a General Assembly.[3]
  • Former UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, warned in May 2016 that drug-resistant infections could have “catastrophic consequences” if not addressed.[4]
  • Recommendations to combat AMR include preventing the spread of infections, promoting rapid diagnostics tests and improving the numbers, pay and recognition of people working in infectious disease.[5]
  • Alexander Fleming, who discovered Penicillin, warned about AMR in a Nobel Lecture in 1945.[6]

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