British govt warns superbug epidemic could wipe out 80,000

Two plates which were coated with an antibiotic-resistant bacteria called Klebsiella with a mutation called NDM 1 and then exposed to various antibiotics are seen at the Health Protection Agency in north London (Reuters/Suzanne Plunkett)
A new generation of superbugs that are resistant to antibiotics could eventually kill tens of thousands of people, with many of the deaths related to illnesses as common as the flu or routine surgery, a new government report warns.

Medical professionals are increasingly concerned about new strains of bacteria and viruses that are categorized as antimicrobial resistance (AMR), which render obsolete many antibiotics and antiviral medications largely taken for granted today in hospitals and medical facilities worldwide.

Up to 80,000 people in Britain could perish in the event of a superbug outbreak, while an even higher amount of deaths could occur from other forms of antimicrobial resistant infection, according to data contained in the National Risk Register of Civil Emergencies report, which was compiled by the Cabinet Office.

READ MORE: Antibiotic-resistant superbug has spread to majority of US states – CDC

“The numbers of infections complicated by AMR are expected to increase markedly over the next 20 years. If a widespread outbreak were to occur, we could expect around 200,000 people to be affected by a bacterial blood infection that could not be treated effectively with existing drugs, and around 80,000 of these people might die,” it said.

According to the document, in the event of drug resistant pathogens, “even minor surgery and routine operations could become high-risk procedures, leading to increased duration of illness and ultimately premature mortality.” Such a development would be a real setback for modern medicine, as medical breakthroughs (the report specifically mentioned organ transplantation, bowel surgery and some cancer treatments) may become unsafe due to the risk of infection.

In a separate section, the rise of influenza pandemics – such as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), which broke out in Asia in 2002 and posed a global health threat - were predicted to become “more serious” without effective medication and treatment.

One of the very disturbing possible consequences of such a pandemic is that “half the UK population [could] potentially [be] infected, with between 20,000 and 750,000 additional deaths potentially by its end,” it said.

READ MORE: White House declares war on 'superbugs'

Perhaps it’s not surprising that the report classified pandemic influenza as the highest risk civil emergency facing Britain, apart from terrorist attacks.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron said last July that the rise of superbugs could see the medical community and those who depend on it for treatment “cast back into the dark ages of medicine.”

Super bugs are already responsible for the death of some 50,000 people a year in the United States and Europe, the report revealed. Meanwhile, medical officials have warned that one strain of E.coli (potentially deadly bacteria found in the environment, foods, and intestines of people and animals), is no longer controllable by drugs.

The report echoes the findings by Jim O’Neill, who was appointed last July by Cameron to lead an international commission to investigate global antimicrobial resistance. He predicted, in a report released last December, a global death toll of 10 million people a year by 2050 unless a new generation of drugs is developed.

Analysts are advising doctors to prescribe fewer antibiotics to their patients, in the hope of keeping at bay certain bugs from becoming resilient to medication and mutating into superbugs.