A steep rise in the number of patients who do not respond to antibiotic treatment risks causing a “national health threat”, NHS officials have warned.
Experts say the explosion in the use of antibiotics in the Western world to treat common ailments could become a “catastrophic threat” because increasingly bacteria have become resistant to the drugs, so they do not work when they are really needed.
Officials said the scale of such infections had become a matter of “national concern” with 600 cases reported last year, compared with just five in 2006.
Dame Sally Davies, the chief medical officer for England has previously warned that the threat hanging over the country is equal to that of terrorism.
On Thursday she called for urgent action to reduce the number of antibiotics being prescribed, and improve hygiene in hospitals to prevent the spread of resistant bacteria.
Figures from Public Health England have documented the rise in a group of infections called carbapenemase-producing Enterobacteriaceae (CPE) — which are resistant even to antibiotics that are normally given as a “last resort” because nothing else works.
Patients in this situation still sometimes respond to other drugs, but it can be difficult to find the right treatment in time.
Experts said that the situation was particularly worrying in London and in Manchester, where two NHS trusts, Central Manchester Foundation Trust and University Hospitals South Manchester have each reported at least 100 cases in the past five years.
The report says medical staff need to be trained so they are more aware of the risks of prescribing unnecessary antibiotics, and to improve hygiene to ensure cases of CPE did not spread.
It also says that staff need to be alert to the increased risk of infection from patients from high-risk overseas countries, which include Bangladesh, China, Cyprus, Greece, India, Italy, Malta, Pakistan, Taiwan, Turkey, the United States and all countries in North Africa and the Middle East.
Dr Paul Cosford, PHE’s medical director said: “We need to act swiftly to avoid getting into the situation which has been seen in some other countries, such as Greece, Israel and the United States, where there is significant resistance. “These infections are already causing national concern due to the observed increasing trends in the number of infections, outbreaks and clusters across England.
“We now have a window of opportunity, if we act quickly and decisively, to address this very real public health threat and prevent widespread problems by minimising the negative impact of these organisms.”
He said that, while many countries with such problems were tackling them effectively, Greece was among several where the problem was “out of control”.
Dame Sally said: “Antibiotic resistance poses a real threat to our ability to treat diseases.
“Although there has been an increase in this strain of bacteria, the new toolkit will ensure that hospitals are well placed to detect, manage and control any cases.
“Systems of monitoring for resistant bacteria are essential in safeguarding the effect of our antibiotics.”
She said many of the drugs were being used unnecessarily for mild illnesses that should not be treated with antibiotics — helping to create resistance.