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Microbes beating medicine | 21.06.07

Deaths from previously treatable infections will become more common unless there is investment in the science needed to tackle antibiotic resistance Europes leading scientists have warned in a report published today (21 June 2007).

The report(1), produced by European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC), highlights the ever growing problem of antibiotic resistance in pathogens such as MRSA, Clostridium difficile, E-coli and infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, pneumonia and meningitis. 

Scientists from across Europe are calling for the EU and Member States to provide greater support for the development of simple and cheap means of identifying specific infections as early as possible and greater support for drug companies who are seeking to develop new treatments.   The report also urges greater awareness and monitoring of the problem, more prudent use of antibiotics, more effective containment of the spread of resistance and greater cooperation and coordination across Europe.

Hospital acquired infections are believed to account for 175,000 deaths in Europe each year, many of which are attributable to antibiotic resistance.

Professor Volker ter Meulen, President of the Leopoldina Academy of Sciences, Germany and Chair the reports working group, said:  The problem of antibiotic resistance is growing.  Our concern is that the European policy makers are not doing enough to stimulate the development of new antibacterial drugs and encourage the sharing of information between Member States.  This is vital to identify patterns and tackle resistance.

For example, research and development for new antibiotic drugs is not an attractive option for drug companies in comparison with treatments for long-term chronic illnesses which offer a better return on investment.   Drug companies will need to be incentivised to continue valuable antibiotic R&D.

Antibiotic resistance is not just a problem for hospitals and patients but for everyone.  Business will be hit, with employees off sick.  There is also the danger that antibiotic resistant pathogens could enter the food chain via livestock.

Professor Richard Moxon, based at the University of Oxford and a member of the working group, said: It is crucially important to rebuild European academic capability in microbiology and clinical infectious disease infrastructure.  But antibiotic resistance is not just a medical issue.  Social habits may lead to increased cases of resistance such as the over-prescribing of general antibiotics instead of ones designed to treat specific pathogens.   In some EU states antibiotics can even be bought without prescriptions.

All factors that could lead to antibiotic resistance or be affected by it need to be considered.  EU institutions and Government departments in Member States responsible for public health, environment, industry and scientific research have to work together to take action to tackle this problem.

In monitoring the trend of drug resistance across Europe, the observation and recording of resistance is extremely valuable. The European Commission is responsible for coordinating this surveillance, and gathers information from Member States to plot the spread of infections. However the report found that data collected is of a variable standard making comparisons between countries difficult.

Knowing where the problems are most common is extremely valuable to predict possible impacts on the economy, to bring about changes in healthcare practice and inform research funders throughout Europe on where research funding should be focused, added Professor ter Meulen

NOTES 1. Tackling antibacterial resistance in Europe 2. EASAC the European Academies Science Advisory Council is made up of the national science academies of the EU member states to enable them to collaborate with each other in providing advice to European policy-makers.