Britain is facing a "massive" rise in antibiotic-resistant blood poisoning caused by the bacterium E.coli – bringing closer the spectre of diseases that are impossible to treat.Experts say the growth of antibiotic resistance now poses as great a threat to global health as the emergence of new diseases such as Aids and pandemic flu.Professor Peter Hawkey, a clinical microbiologist and chair of the Government's antibiotic-resistance working group, said that antibiotic resistance had become medicine's equivalent of climate change.
The "slow but insidious growth" of resistant organisms was threatening to turn common infections into untreatable diseases, he said. Already, an estimated 25,000 people die each year in the European Union from antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections."It is a worldwide issue – there are no boundaries," he said. "We have very good policies on the use of antibiotics in man and in animals in the UK. But we are not alone. We have to think globally."Between 2005 and 2009 the incidence of E.coli "bacteraemias" [the presence of bacteria in the blood] rose by 30 per cent, from 18,000 to over 25,000 cases. Those resistant to antibiotics have risen from 1 per cent at the beginning of the century to 10 per cent.Across Europe, the percentage of carbapenem-resistant K.pneumoniae has doubled from 7 per cent to 15 per cent, the ECDC said. Marc Sprenger, the director, said: "The situation is critical. We need to declare a war against these bacteria."
Explained: how bugs adapt to beat antibiotics
Bugs are like all other life forms: they must adapt to survive. Unlike human beings, however, for whom evolution is measured in millennia, reproduction is so rapid among bacteria that they can change in months or years.
With the introduction of a new antibiotic, natural selection goes to work. Most bacteria are killed by the new drug but the natural variation that occurs in any species means a few examples may, by chance, have some quirk in their genetic structure that allows them to survive.
These bacteria are then selected out by the antibiotic, which kills the rest. The mutant bacteria grow in numbers until they become the dominant species.