York Press column – We must meet the challenge of antibiotic resistance
March 15, 2019
At the risk of disappointing some readers, I am not going to talk about Brexit and this week’s ongoing Westminster circus. At the time of writing things are changing by the hour, it is therefore very difficult to offer a satisfactory analysis now, and frankly by the time you read this things will probably have moved on again. I will as always set out my views on my website and in a future column, but today I want to address something that arguably dwarfs even Brexit, the enormous global challenge of antibiotic resistance.
Antibiotic resistance threatens the terrible prospect that some of our most vital medicines simply cease to work, and of humanity taking a step backwards into a darker age. It occurs when bacteria change in response to antibiotics being used against them, and become able to resist the use of these medicines to control them, making them far harder to treat.
The appalling implications of this are obvious, making it far more difficult to treat common infectious diseases. Conditions like TB and pneumonia are already becoming far harder to treat as antibiotics have become less effective through the spread of resistant bacteria, and everyday operations like hip operations and caesarean sections could become too dangerous to carry out. This is quite literally a mortal threat – already 50,000 deaths each year across Europe and North America are attributed to resistance, and it is projected that 10 million people will die each year across the globe by 2050 unless we get this problem under control.
If you have noticed your GP is becoming more reluctant to prescribe you antibiotics, you have already been affected by the need to curb antibiotic resistance. Strange as it may sound, this is actually a good thing, as the over-use of antibiotics (in both healthcare and farming) is a major cause of the spread of resistance, as the more bacteria are exposed to them when not strictly necessary, the greater chance it has of developing resistance and making these antibiotics redundant.
As chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Antibiotics, I have taken a close interest in the evolving policy response, and have repeatedly lobbied the government for the UK to make urgent progress in what is becoming a global race against the clock. I was therefore very glad to see the Health Secretary Matt Hancock step up the British contribution with the announcement of a new 5 year national action plan for antibiotic resistance across 2019-24 at the World Economic Forum at Davos in January, as part of a wider 20 year framework.
This aims to reduce antibiotic-resistant infections in humans by 10% in 5 years, and cut British use of antibiotics by 15% by 2024. Crucially for North Yorkshire’s large livestock farming sector, the plan also wants to deliver a 25% reduction in the use of antibiotics in animals during 2016-20, and then pursue a new target from 2021.
Most encouragingly, the Health Secretary announced a new funding model to incentivise pharmaceutical companies to develop new antibiotics that are effective against resistant bacteria. This is absolutely vital, as no new class of antibiotics has been invented since the 1980s, and the effectiveness of existing ones continues to diminish. The new payment model run by the NHS would pay drug companies for how valuable their new antibiotics are to the health service, rather than simply on quantity of antibiotics sold, ensuring these resistant bacteria-busting medicines are ready ‘behind the emergency glass’ if necessary, and giving companies the certainty needed to invest the eye-watering £1 billion it costs to produce a new drug.
I also think we need to be creative about how we channel other resources into the fight, for instance through drawing on our overseas aid budget. This is why I lobbied Ministers by signing a joint letter with fellow Conservative MPs to the International Development Secretary and Health Secretary, urging them to consider awarding small UK grants from the aid budget to support the early development and clinical trials of new antibiotics.
As a country we must squarely face and resolve today’s Brexit challenges, but we also cannot take our eye off the ball on long-term issues like antibiotic resistance, on which we simply cannot afford to fail.