By: Marc Lallanilla, Life's Little Mysteries Assistant Editor
Published: 01/25/2013 11:24 AM EST on LiveScience
A prominent British health official has declared the rise of antibiotic-resistant superbugs so grave a threat that the world is now facing an "apocalyptic scenario" in which people die of routine infections.
Dame Sally Davies, the U.K.'s chief medical officer (a role equivalent to the U.S. surgeon general), warned Parliament that contagious antibiotic-resistant disease is an imminent crisis and should be included on the government's official register of possible national emergencies, right next to terrorist attacks and natural disasters, according to the Guardian.
Superbugs are disease-causing bacteria that have evolved to have defenses against antibiotic drugs. Over the years, some strains of bacteria have become so robust they resist almost every weapon in our drug armamentarium.
"There are few public health issues of potentially greater importance for society than antibiotic resistance," Davies told the Guardian. And she pulled no punches when speaking to Parliament: "We need to get our act together in this country," the Guardian quoted her as saying.
Davies is hardly the first to sound the alarm on the spread of antibiotic-resistant infections. "It certainly would — and has — resulted in a much greater risk of dying of infection," Dr. Brad Spellberg, assistant professor of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, told LiveScience. [5 Ways Computers Boost Drug Discovery]
"We already are seeing infections that are untreatable," Spellberg said. Besides the rising threats of antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis and gonorrhea, he cited three bacterial infections of particular concern: Acinetobacter baumannii, Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Klebsiella pneumonia.
Staphylococcus aureus is just one of many antibiotic-resistant "superbugs" that have health officials alarmed.
Each of these bacteria can cause a number of infectious diseases, including pneumonia, septicemia and urinary tract infections. In the case of Klebsiella, Spellberg noted, there's just one highly toxic drug left, and it's effective only about half the time it's used.
It's equally alarming that antibiotic drug development is at a virtual standstill, he said. "The pipeline is barren," partly because pharmaceutical companies have few incentives for developing antibiotics that people take for just a few days or weeks, Spellberg said.
Instead, drugmakers focus on research into drugs that are taken for years to treat chronic conditions like arthritis or heart disease. Davies told Parliament, "There is a broken market model for making new antibiotics."
While Spellberg is careful to add some perspective to the issue – "I don't think we should be alarmist" – he emphasizes that a "massive crisis" is looming if we leave unaddressed the continued rise in antibiotic-resistant superbugs, since it could result in a "catastrophic drop in quality of life."