What is the future of surgery if we can’t find antibiotics that work?

This week the World Health Organisation has clearly stated that our over use of one of the most important drugs ever discovered will threaten modern healthcare as never before. Until the discovery of penicillin, bacteria were the biggest killers, with more than half of all deaths caused by bacterial infections.

Since the middle of the twentieth century these magic drugs have transformed all our lives giving people who would normally die from a simple scratch hope to be able to survive, however we have forgotten that we could die from something this simple, and that we have come to rely on antibiotics for life saving operations.

As Alexander Fleming, discoverer and developer of penicillin, accepted the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1945 he said: “It is not difficult to make microbes resistant to penicillin in the laboratory by exposing them to concentrations not sufficient to kill them… There is the danger that the ignorant man may easily underdose himself and by exposing his microbes to non-lethal quantities of the drug make them resistant.”

The report reveals that tools to tackle antibiotic resistance–such as basic systems to track and monitor the problem–show gaps or do not exist in many countries. While some countries have taken important steps in addressing the problem, every country and individual needs to do more.

Other actions needed include preventing infections from happening in the first place–through better hygiene, access to clean water, infection prevention and control in healthcare facilities, and vaccination–to reduce the need for antibiotics. WHO is also calling attention to the need to develop new diagnostics, antibiotics and other tools to allow healthcare professionals to stay ahead of emerging resistance.

Over the past 6 years we have lobbied politicians from all parties on the threat of antibiotic resistant infections and the consequences of not taking action. As well as antibiotic awareness, simple hand hygiene measures can stop the spread of infection to open wounds, prevention is always better than cure.

Former Health Secretary Alan Johnson who initiated research to assess the need for education and a public information campaign on healthcare associated infections and the importance of hand hygiene, buried the findings and recommendations despite substantial amounts of taxpayers’ money being used to fund the survey. Andrew Burnham, his successor, dismissed our letter highlighting the need for a hand hygiene campaign at the height of the flu pandemic in 2009 stating it had no relevance. Andrew Lansley thought that our campaign had merit but failed to take the initiative forward. We lobbied the present Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt with an initiative we had started with a school and NHS Hospital on a hand hygiene campaign asking if they could invite the Department of Education to work with the NHS to educate our young children on the importance of hand hygiene, which was summarily dismissed.

Our political elite would do well to heed the gravity of the warning from the World Health Organisation regarding the threat from resistant bacteria. These bugs know no boundaries, they will affect rich or poor, young and old and they should if they care about their family’s future take the necessary action as we have suggested before it is too late.

There is still a window of opportunity to prevent the greatest disaster facing mankind if there is the political will to do this. Let us hope that in the future those generations looking back do not condemn them for their failure now to do the right thing now.


Derek Butler
MRSA Action UK
07762 741114