1492138203557 - Microbiologist warns of ‘pre-antibiotic era’ and urges action on resistance

Microbiologist warns of ‘pre-antibiotic era’ and urges action on resistance

Antibiotics, the backbone of modern medicine, is at risk of becoming obsolete if people don’t start taking resistance to the drugs seriously, a leading microbiologist says.

A world without penicillin may sound apocalyptic, but Siouxsie Wiles believes this could happen within a decade unless the world acts swiftly.

“The prediction is that, without urgent action, by 2025 we could see a pre-antibiotic era when a simple stubbed toe could mean amputation or death,” Wiles said.

If people become resistant to antibiotics by using them too often, it could result in a doomsday scenario, where one in three human being die, researchers say. 

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Ministry of Health chief nursing officer Jane O’Malley​ agrees returning to a pre-antibiotic era is possible. ​

“The important thing to realise is we have comparatively low rates of antibiotic resistance at the moment, but our antibiotic use is relatively high in the community and that’s something we have to manage,” O’Malley said.

Wiles, a science communicator and head of Auckland University’s bioluminescent superbugs lab, raised the global issue in her book, Antibiotic Resistance: The End of Modern Medicine?

“It’s not just our ability to treat infectious diseases it’s our ability to treat vulnerable patients,” she said.

“It’s thoroughly terrifying – it’s how we do modern medicine.”

Wiles said we’re not at crisis point yet and Kiwis aren’t dying in their thousands, but resistance chains are around.

More than two-thirds of our infectious disease hospitalisations were for bacterial infections in 2013, Wiles said. 

“Our rates of staphylococcus are the highest in the developed world. Streptococcus, which can sometimes digest human flesh [and causes strep throat] is also prevalent. By world standards our rates of rheumatic fever are shocking.”

While poor housing and poverty adds to the problem, it’s important to remember no one is immune, she added. 

“If you breathe and you’re alive, you are at risk.”

In a UK review on anti-microbial resistance (AMR), completed in 2016, author and economist Jim O’Neill​ stated: “By 2050, the death toll could be a staggering one person every three seconds if AMR is not tackled now”.

Current death rates are estimated at 700,000 each year, globally, O’Neill wrote.


In May 2015, the World Health Organisation released a global action plan to tackle antibiotic resistance, and New Zealand promised to have a national action plan in place by May 2017.  

​That’s on track and must be public by May 21, when it reaches the World Health Assembly – which is a bit like an AGM for the world of health, O’Malley said.

The plan will include ways to educate the public and mitigate the spread of resistance.

“We need to act now and we need to act globally, and in partnership,” O’Malley said.

“Wide use of vaccination, best use of personal hand hygiene and isolation when you’re sick – these are all things that human beings can apply.”

Wide availability and liberal use of antibiotics has not done us any favours, added O’Malley.

“We have got into a situation where people get an infection, they go to their doctor and we expect the doctor will give a medication to fix it and that’s not realistic.”

But Wiles worried the plan wouldn’t go far enough and said, “like climate change, it’s this idea that we’re not going to see it impacting us til it’s too late”.

“It’s going to take time to get things in place, and we’re not doing that.”


– Don’t take antibiotics for a viral infection like a cold or the flu.

– Do not save any antibiotics for the next time you get sick.

– Discard any leftover medication once you have completed your prescribed course of treatment.

– Take antibiotics exactly as the healthcare provider tells you.

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