Move over North Korea and global warming, there’s a new kid on the block.
This week a global conference will be held in Berlin to discuss the so-called “antibiotic apocalypse” which could wipe out up to 10 million people a year by 2050.
But wait, aren’t antibiotics supposed to heal us?
The problem comes down to widespread overuse and misuse with doctors over-prescribing antibiotics and farmers giving them to livestock. This results in antibiotics becoming less effective, leaching into the land and ultimately creating “superbugs”.
“Superbugs are gaining strength because we continue to squander these precious medicines through overuse in human medicine and as cheap production tools in animal agriculture,” Lance Price, an antibiotic researcher at George Washington University, told The Guardian.
With increased antibiotic resistance happening superbugs on the loose, routine operations would become riskier and major surgery perhaps impossible.
“It’s a pretty grim future, I think a lot of major surgery would be seriously threatened,” Professor Richard James from the University of Nottingham told the BBC in 2015.
The conference is being organised by the Wellcome, a global charitable foundation that supports scientists in tackling big problems.
At the event, scientists and researchers are being encouraged to submit proposals for how to deal with the antibiotic apocalypse.
The simplest approach is to limit doctors’ ability to prescribe antibiotics and ban their use in agriculture, but this is easier said than done.
Aussies do have some skin in the game too, as we are the world’s eighth highest consumer of antibiotics.
News Corp reports that 65 per cent of Australian workers mistakenly believe antibiotics will help them recover from a cold or flu more quickly and that 60 per cent of doctors prescribe them to meet patient expectations.
In July, ABC reported on a five-year study that showed Australian doctors were over-prescribing antibiotics on a massive level, giving more than 4 million patients medicine they didn’t need.
“The difference is much bigger than we thought,” said Professor Chris Del Mar, from Bond University in Queensland who led the research. “Because what we knew before was that compared to the best-performing countries in this regard — places like the Netherlands and Sweden — we are prescribing about twice as much as they do for these conditions.”
The Australian Government is reportedly encouraging GPs to take a “wait and see” approach instead of immediately prescribing antibiotics.
But Australia – and the world – will have to do more to avert an antibiotic apocalypse.