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Antibiotic resistance: The story that won’t go away

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Headlines about antibiotic resistance – the increase in so-called "superbugs" – have been persistent in 2016. The issue of infection-causing bacteria becoming increasingly resistant to the drugs used to fight them poses a pressing risk to public health worldwide, and according to a 2014 report from the World Health Organization, "threatens the achievements of modern medicine."

The Review on Antimicrobial Resistance, commissioned by the U.K. government, estimated that "by 2050, 10 million lives a year and a cumulative $100 trillion of economic output are at risk due to the rise of drug resistant infections." For perspective, cancer currently kills 8.2 million people annually.

In September of this year, the United Nations agreed on a declaration to fight antibiotic resistance. This was only the fourth time in the organisation's 71-year history that a health issue has been treated with such gravity, putting antibiotic resistance on par with HIV and ebola.


Transplant surgery and chemotherapy could be impossible

"It's hard to be too dramatic," Prof. Michael Gardam, associate professor of medicine at the University of Toronto, told CNBC via telephone.

Echoing this severity, Prof. Toby Jenkins, a biophysical chemist at the University of Bath, said that "a Doomsday scenario is that transplant surgery will be impossible, chemotherapy likewise." "Even a dental abscess could become deadly, or at least very painful," he added.

The overprescription of antibiotics is one cause of the problem, with Gardam saying that it is "becoming the norm to use last line drugs" in treating bacterial infections, and that "just in case" prescriptions should be handled with care. The U.S.-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that half of antibiotic use in humans is unnecessary.

But, other contributing factors well integrated into daily life are also to blame. Gardam also criticized antibacterial soap and toothpaste, particularly prevalent in North America. Deeming such products unnecessary, Gardam warned that "your mouth is not meant to be a sterile zone." He also stressed the importance of "not messing around with the natural flora of the body," as such consumer products are wont to do.

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The food industry also plays a significant part in the antibiotic resistance dilemma, with healthy food-producing animals fed drugs to both prevent disease and promote growth. According to 2012 data from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and research firm IMS Health, more than 70 percent of the antibiotics considered medically important for human health sold in the U.S. are actually used in livestock.

Public awareness of the issue can be a struggle, as "media coverage is similar to what we're seeing with global climate change: by and large, nobody cares," Gardam said. "It is extremely difficult to get people to act. We've done a lot of talking and shaming but that isn't going to change anything," he added. "It's a messy situation with no one big fix."


Fighting back a different way

There are some bright spots in the superbug story, however, with innovative scientists developing new ways to deal with the problem.

A team of researchers from the University of Bath in the U.K. made headlines earlier this month by developing a prototype "smart" medical dressing for burns, designed to change color should it detect an infection.

Jenkins, one of the scientists behind the work, told CNBC via telephone that the dressing should help doctors be "more confident in their diagnosis and prescribe (antibiotics) less." But, testing so far has only been on animal substitutes, meaning that it could be a few years before the dressing is used on human patients.


A "smart" wound dressing, developed by scientists at the University of Bath to change color upon detecting infection.
University of Bath
A "smart" wound dressing, developed by scientists at the University of Bath to change color upon detecting infection.

Different research published in the journal Current Biology last month demonstrates a "creative approach to antimicrobial resistance" through the use of "predatory bacteria," Dr. Serge Mostowy, one of the scientists behind the work told CNBC via telephone.

The team from Imperial College London and the University of Nottingham have effectively fought off shigella bacteria – closely related to salmonella and known for causing food poisoning in humans – by injecting test species with a different, predatory bacteria.

Testing has been on fish larvae so far, though topical treatments using predatory bacteria have already cleared infections in mammals.

The financial world has also made a contribution to fighting antibiotic resistance. ShareAction, an organisation which encourages investors to fund ethical causes, earlier this year formed an investor group which includes Aviva Investors, Natixis Asset Management and Coller Capital to pressure food companies into minimising the use of antibiotics in the production process.

The project is managed in conjunction with the Fair Animal Investment Risk and Return Initiative, and assets under the management of the investor group supporting the initiative now stand at $2 trillion, double the initial figure when launched.

Clare Richards, campaigns manager at ShareAction, told CNBC via e-mail that "all companies have responded to our engagement … (with) more than half report(ing) that they are either reviewing the use of antibiotics in their supply chain, or that they are considering changes."

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