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Julian Sturdy - Strong Voice for York Outer

Julian Sturdy

Member of Parliament for York Outer

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Yorkshire Post column – Antibiotic Resistance could be a threat even worse than Coronavirus

August 17, 2020

In my capacity as Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Antibiotics, I have long been aware of antibiotic resistance and drug-resistant infection as one of the greatest threats to health worldwide, with the potential to be even more catastrophic than coronavirus.

The ongoing pandemic is an example of how devastating public health threats can arise as if from nowhere, and has led me and others to consider the advantages of uniting government focus and planning on drug-resistance infection and pandemic preparedness, to enhance our response across the board, as well as the contribution the UK can make to global efforts to counter these twin menaces.

While the risks of a pandemic will be sadly evident to all readers, I should perhaps clarify why drug-resistant infection requires a similar urgency. Antibiotic resistance threatens the appalling prospect that some of our most vital medicines simply cease to work.

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 harder to treat as antibiotics have become less effective through the spread of resistant bacteria, and everyday operations like hip operations and caesareans could become too dangerous to carry out. It is therefore literally a mortal threat – already 50,000 deaths each year across Europe and North America are ascribed to antibiotic resistance, and it is estimated that 10 million people will die each year across the globe by 2050 unless we tackle this.

With no new class of antibiotics created since the 1980s, and the effectiveness of current ones continuing to diminish, humanity is in a race against time, to prevent a return to the medical dark ages when an infected graze could be a death sentence.

The potential scale of the catastrophe from drug-resistant infection is why it is listed alongside viral pandemics like Covid-19 by the World Health Organisation among the top ten threats to global health. However, the two challenges are linked by more than size.

Both are a serious menace in the factory farming sector worldwide, for instance, an industry considered one of the most probable origins of the next global flu pandemic, and also an important source of growing drug-resistant infection from the overuse of antibiotics on farm animals. Our own high-standard farming sector has made huge strides in reducing inappropriate antibiotic use, but there is still a way to go globally.

Coronavirus has also highlighted the need to consider these two threats in tandem. For example, concerns have been raised that the greater prescribing of antibiotics to treat pandemic patients currently could store up problems for the future by allowing more people to develop resistance. The current pandemic has seen unprecedentedly high and uncoordinated use of different antibiotics, spreading resistance to vital drugs.

Earlier this month, I organised the sending of a cross-party joint letter to the Prime Minister, including five former cabinet ministers. We propose the appointment of a specific government Minister to coordinate all work on this across departments, including Health, Treasury, Foreign Office, Environment, and Business. A move of this kind would allow the UK to assume a greater leadership role in this international scientific effort, and leverage the expertise of its world-class science and universities sector.

Thankfully, our government already has a good base on which to build. In 2019, Health Secretary Matt Hancock stepped up the British contribution to the world battle against antibiotics resistance, with a new funding model to incentivise pharmaceutical companies to develop new antibiotics that are effective against resistant bacteria, and a five-year plan to cut antibiotic-resistant infections in humans by 10 per cent, and it would be wonderful to see this vital work more closely coordinated with viral pandemic planning.

I look forward to the Prime Minister’s response – on these issues there is no time to lose.