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Antibiotic resistance takes flight as disease threat mounts

- Featured Image

Evidence that wild birds are carrying drug-resistant bacteria has heightened fears about the overuse of antibiotics.

As international Antibiotic Awareness Week begins, researchers in the United States have found that wild crows are carrying bacteria resistant to the antibiotic Vancomycin in their gut.

While microbiologists and immunologists are yet to assess the full implications of the discovery, it has highlighted concerns that extensive use of antibiotics in health and animal husbandry is fuelling drug resistance and leaving humanity increasingly at risk from untreatable bacterial infections.

Researchers at Tufts University in Massachusetts unexpectedly found genes for resistance to Vancomycin – for many years viewed as a drug of last resort in treating bacterial infections – in the faeces of crows from widely dispersed populations in the United States, according to online news service Environmental Health News.

The researchers were particularly alarmed by evidence that some of the Vancomycin-resistant bacteria identified were also resistant to several other antibiotics widely used in human medicine and animal husbandry.

Around 27,000 tonnes of antibiotics are used in farming in the United States to prevent and treat disease and promote growth in livestock. This is in addition to the large quantities administered to humans.

The discovery follows warnings issued by infectious disease experts earlier this year that increasing antibiotic resistance posed a “catastrophic threat” that could make even minor and routine medical procedures deadly.

Britain’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Dame Sally Davies said humanity risked “losing the war” against potentially deadly bacteria because of increasing resistance to a wide array of antibiotics and a “discovery void” in the development of new drugs.

Australasian Society for Infectious Diseases President Associate Professor David Looke said unfettered use of antibiotics in both animals and humans, especially in the developing world, had driven an “alarming” upsurge in levels of antibiotic resistance.

The Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that every year at least two million people in the United States become ill with infections resistant to antibiotics, and that around 23,000 die as a result.

In an effort to combat the rise of antibiotic resistance, the National Prescribing Service (NPS) is urging medical practitioners and patients to mark international Antibiotic Awareness Week (18-24 November) to join its antibiotic resistance campaign.

The NPS has invited doctors to make a pledge to fight against antibiotic resistance by visiting the website www.nps.org.au/antibiotics.

After making a pledge, medical practitioners will be able to generate a personalised antibiotic resistance fighter certificate for display in their workplace, and the first 3000 to make the commitment will also be able to order a free Resistance Fighter t-shirt.

In addition, 15 Australian and New Zealand companies manufacturing and fabricating equipment and fittings used in hospitals, medical clinics, aged care centres and schools have joined forces to promote the use of antimicrobial copper in everything from taps, door handles, light switches and bench tops through to beds and IV poles.

The copper is claimed to kill many bacteria and viruses on contact, slashing infection rates.   

Adrian Rollins