These are the words Sally Davies, England’s chief medical officer, said while telling The Guardian’s Robin McKie the world needs to act urgently to stop antimicrobial resistance from spreading.
Experts from all around the world will attend a global conference in Berlin later this week to accelerate action on tackling drug-resistant infections, which organisers say represents “one of the greatest health and economic challenges of our time”.
So how bad can antibiotics really be?
According to the Review on Antimicrobial Resistance, published by the British Government, at least 700,000 people die each year from drug-resistant infections.
That’s predicted to rise to 10 million a year by 2050 if nothing is done, which could cost the global economy up to $128 trillion.
Experts say it could also push a further 28.3 million people into extreme poverty.
Considering Australia is the world’s eighth-highest consumer of antibiotics, we could be facing pretty serious problem over the next few years.
According to independent Australian not-for-profit NPS MedicineWise, more than 30 million prescriptions for antibiotics were written back in 2014, and nearly half of the population was prescribed at least one course of antibiotics.
It said resistance is occurring with the most common drug, penicillin – which has saved millions of lives since it was invented in 1928 – as well as so-called “reserve” antibiotics such as vancomycin and meropenem.
According to a federal Department of Health survey from the same year, 65 per cent of Australian workers believed antibiotics could help them recover from a cold or flu more quickly – something that’s just not true.
Worryingly, the same survey showed nearly 60 per cent of GPs would prescribe antibiotics to meet patient demands or expectations.
In June this year, Austin Health director of infections diseases, Professor Lindsay Grayson, warned Australian needed to take action.
“If we don’t have drugs to kill these increasingly stubborn infections, we will be compelled to surgically remove infected limbs,” he said.
“We need people to understand that if we continue to recklessly misuse and overuse antibiotics as we have for the past 50-70 years, doctors will be faced with the choice to amputate infected limbs or risk their patients’ lives.”
That risk isn’t limited to gross-looking, nasty smelling open wounds.
Jonathan Pearce, head of infections and immunity at the UK Medical Research Council, told The Guardian even standard procedures could become deadly.
“Routine surgery, joint replacements, caesarean sections, and chemotherapy also depend on antibiotics, and will also be at risk.
“Common infections could kill again.”
According to the Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care, more than 1000 cases of almost-untreatable superbugs were reported in Australia in the 12 months leading up to March this year.
The biggest increase was in gonorrhoea, a sexually-transmitted infection.
The government is doing several things to try and combat resistance.
First and foremost, they’re encouraging doctors to cut prescriptions by 25 per cent by telling patients to use a “wait and see” approach for 48 hours to see if the body’s natural immune system can fight the infection.
They’re also conducting a public education campaign so people become aware antibiotics cannot cure everything, and investing in research.
However, even if humans were to stop popping antibiotics tomorrow, there’s still a risk resistance will spread from the amount already in the environment.
Countries like the US famously pump livestock full of antibiotics to keep them healthy, so they can grow faster and yield better cuts of meat.
A slew of Asian countries also use them to promote growth in poultry and pigs.
In fact, Sally Davies – England’s chief medical officer – told The Guardian some areas of the Ganges river, which flows through India and Bangladesh, tests positive for antibiotics at the levels doctors try to achieve in patients’ bloodstreams.
Something must be done before global health steps back in time to 1928.