Britain is to urge the G8 to take action against the spread of drug-resistant microbes as medical and veterinary experts warn that co-ordinated international action is needed to prevent soaring rates of potentially lethal infections turning into a public health catastrophe.
David Willetts, the science minister, will propose far-reaching measures that would clamp down on the overuse of antibiotics by GPs and hospital doctors. He will also try to restrict usage on farms and fisheries, where the drugs are blended with feed to boost yields.
Willetts will push for a consensus on ways to ramp up the discovery of new drugs to fight bacteria, speed their approval and delivery to patients, and strengthen cross-border surveillance for emerging resistant strains.
"Across the G8, we should regard the spread of antibiotic resistance as a global challenge that is up there with climate change, water stress and environmental damage, and there are genuine policy consequences that follow from that," Willetts told the Guardian ahead of Wednesday's meeting of science ministers at the Royal Society in London.
Drug-resistance is an inevitable consequence of antibiotics. The drugs wipe out susceptible infections but leave resistant organisms behind. The survivors multiply and, in time, can become immune to even the strongest antibiotics. Though improved surveillance and hygiene has reduced levels of life-threatening MRSA and C difficile "superbugs" in hospitals, resistant strains are on the rise.
In Britain, doctors see ever more resistant strains of TB, E coli and Klebsiella, which causes pneumonia. Some 80% of gonorrhoea is now resistant to the frontline antibiotic tetracycline. Of serious concern is the rise of resistance to powerful drugs called carbapenems, the antibiotics of last resort. The first few cases were detected in Britain in 2003, but since then the numbers have soared to 217 cases in the first six months of 2011.
Willetts has asked England's chief medical officer, Dame Sally Davies, to brief the meeting after she warned in a March report that untreatable infections posed a "catastrophic threat" to the population.