Today, patients undergoing routine treatments, such as cancer treatment, organ transplantation and hip and knee replacements, are routinely given antibiotics to prevent infection during therapy. The frequency of antibiotic resistant infections is increasing, meaning that there are more and more deaths from antibiotic resistant bacteria.
Sepsis is a common cause of death in the UK with over 44,000 deaths each year. More people die from sepsis than lung cancer (35,000) and bowel cancer (16,000) and many of these sepsis deaths are due to untreatable antibiotic resistant infections. If there were no new antibiotics, then any infections become untreatable. The failure to develop new antibiotics is of great concern. Antibiotic resistance is life-threatening, with the young and old being most at risk of resistant infections. This is because these two groups have low immunity, making them more susceptible to infection.
There are 44,000 deaths a year in the UK because of sepsisThe UK Sepsis Trust
So why are there no new antibiotics?
The chart below shows when new antibiotics developed by pharmaceutical companies were introduced to the market. Only two new antibiotic classes have been introduced in the last 40 years so we don’t have new drugs to fight antibiotic resistant bacteria in our armoury.
Discovery of new classes of antibacterial drugs has stalled (1930s to 2000s)
Source: World Health Organization (2012)
Why aren’t big pharmaceutical companies working on it?
Many of the large pharmaceutical companies have closed down their antibiotic research divisions because they cannot see how they can make money from antibiotics (they answer to shareholders after all!). Drugs like those used to treat cancer are often given for life and so provide a sufficient income stream to pharmaceutical companies to warrant research investment. Antibiotics are given for just a short course of treatment and so sales are very limited. In addition, governments hold down the price of antibiotics, leaving little financial incentive for pharmaceutical companies to invest in research.
Whenever a new antibiotic is introduced, it is not long before bacteria become resistant to it. If a new antibiotic is reserved only for use in treating resistant infections, then most of the time it will sit on the pharmacy shelf not being used until a patient presents with an antibiotic resistant infection. Again this dis-incentivises any commercial company to develop new antibiotics.
The UK Government are investigating
The Prime Minister has set up a UK Government commission Review on Antimicrobial Resistance, headed up by the well known economist Jim O‘Neill, to look into why new antibiotics are not being developed and what the causes of antibiotic resistance are.
Resistance to antibiotics is now a very real and worrying threat, as bacteria mutates to become immune to its effect.David Cameron, PM