Overuse of antibiotics is building widespread resistance and threatening to halt vital medical treatments such as hip replacements, intensive care for premature babies and cancer therapies, health experts say.
Dominique Monnet of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control's (ECDC) scientific advice unit said the "whole span of modern medicine" is under threat because bugs are become resistant to antibiotics, rendering the drugs useless.
"If this wave of antibiotic resistance gets over us, we will not be able to do organ transplants, hip replacements, cancer chemotherapy, intensive care and neonatal care for premature babies," he told reporters at a briefing.
Superbugs common in hospitals
Antibiotics are needed in all these treatments to prevent bacterial infection. But drug-resistant bacteria are a growing problem in hospitals worldwide, marked by the rise of superbugs such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).
Such infections kill about 25,000 people a year in Europe and around 19,000 in the United States. On top of the risks to future treatments, Monnet said the costs of antibiotic resistance were already hurting - and may hit healthcare budgets across the European Union yet harder if the problem is not addressed.
The six most common multi-drug-resistant bacteria - often referred to as superbugs - cause around 400,000 infections a year in Europe, killing around 25,000 people and using 2.5 million hospital days a year.
Threat to public health
"Across the European Union the number of patients infected by resistant bacteria is increasing, and that antibiotic resistance is a major threat to public health," the ECDC said.
The ECDC is planning an "antibiotic awareness" campaign to urge doctors to stop overprescribing antibiotics.
Patients demanding antibiotics for viral infections often are not aware that they will not work, it said, but doctors are and should stop giving in to pressure.
Sarah Earnshaw of the ECDC's communications unit, pointed to a 2002 survey that showed 60% of patients do not know that antibiotics do not work against viruses like flu and colds.
"Patients often demand antibiotics," she said. And doctors often think, she said, that giving in is a quicker way to deal with a demanding patients than persuading them otherwise. - (Reuters Health/Kate Kelland, November 2009)
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