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Rise of superbugs needs strong action

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A Senate Committee has called for the establishment of a national organisation to help combat superbugs and monitor antibiotic use amid fears that antimicrobial resistance could soon render minor infections untreatable and make routine operations potentially deadly.

In an alarming assessment, the Finance and Public Administration References Committee has released a report warning that antimicrobial resistance is spreading rapidly worldwide, including in Australia, severely compromising the ability to treat many basic ailments.

The report, which drew on evidence from 38 submissions, including from infectious disease experts, warned that resistant infections were no longer confined to hospitals, and were increasingly being acquired in the community.

The Committee cited evidence from the President of the Australian Society for Antimicrobials (ASA), Associate Professor Thomas Gottlieb, that multiresistant infections were now a daily reality for many specialists.

“What I and a lot of our members have seen in the last decade is that the issue of untreatable infections is no longer an abstract notion; it is now a reality,” Associate Professor Gottlieb told the inquiry. “It is a day-to-day issue for specialists in many practices. We are seeing them now in individual patients, many of whom will die of their infections – not through inadequate medical care but through unavailability of antibiotics.”

Infectious diseases physician Professor Lindsay Grayson said resistance rates for urinary tract infections had risen from 5 to 20 per cent in a five-year period.

The ASA warned that resistance to last-line antibiotics was now common among many pathogens found in Australian hospitals, including carbapenems, fluoroquinolones and glycopeptides.

The Committee said urgent action was needed to stem, or at least control, the rise of antimicrobial resistance.

It called for the Commonwealth to establish an independent body to develop a national strategy to combat antimicrobial resistance and to rigorously monitor and report on antibiotic use in humans and animals.

The Committee said the current voluntary regime for reporting sales of antimicrobials be made mandatory, and recommended that Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority publish annual reports on antibiotic use on animals.

The use of antibiotics in medical practice may also come under increased scrutiny.

The Committee wants the Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care to tighten access to antimicrobials in health services, and has recommended that the Department of Health and Ageing developed “additional mechanisms to improve antibiotic stewardship in general practice.”

The Senate inquiry grew out of frustration with a perceived lack of action on key findings of the 1999 Joint Expert Technical Advisory Committee on Antibiotic Resistance, which originally raised the alarm about the rise of antibiotic resistance in the community.