Superbugs deaths now at 10,000 a year
Warnings about the dangers of antibiotic overuse started to emerge from laboratories, but because relatively few patients were affected and nobody knew what to do about it, the situation was ignored. Antibiotics continued to be consumed in ever-growing quantities by sick humans and farm animals alike.
The problem took off in 1991, when Britain contributed its own supercharged strain to the world lexicon of multi-drug-resistant superbugs. MRSA-16 first appeared in Northamptonshire, rapidly infecting 400 patients and 27 staff in three hospitals.
Within 18 months it had been reported in 135 more hospitals. Nobody knows how it spread. Along with another British strain, MRSA-15, it went on to infect patients around the world, a pattern that continues.
A meticulous Health Protection Agency study, mapping how the new strains popped up unexpectedly in new hospitals, was published in the Journal of Clinical Microbiology in 2004. But it was too long after the event to shed any light on how the infection had carried. Now research funding is focused on firefighting – casting around for ways to damp down the effects of the pathogens.
It is not just MRSA that is sweeping across Britain like a plague.
Streptococcus, enterococcus and Escherichia coli (E coli) are among a host of bugs emerging in resistant forms and causing everything from pneumonia to tuberculosis, bone destruction and lethal damage to the heart. In addition, we are facing “hyper-virulent” new strains of the bacteria Clostridium difficile (C diff), which have colonised the sites left free by the effect of antibiotics, which kill off many harmless bacterial colonies in their path.
Although C diff is not resistant to treatment, its spores linger indefinitely and, until recently, NHS staff were largely unaware of how to kill them. Consequently, it is the biggest killer of the current superbugs.
In 2006 it was mentioned on the death certificates of 6,480 people, against 1,652 deaths officially attributed to MRSA. However, these figures are recognised to be underestimates, as many superbug deaths are never identified.
Mandatory surveillance of MRSA bloodstream infections is a recent innovation, the number of people carrying it with no symptoms is not recorded, and the formal collection of figures for death and disease associated with C diff (which causes unstoppable diarrhoea or gut perforation) only began in April 2007. The government estimates the annual cost of treatment for such cases to be over £1 billion.
Officially, the total number of MRSA infections is 7,000-8,000 a year, while C diff is running at an annual 55,600 cases. Many experts believe the real total for all superbug infections is nearer 300,000 – how many are fatal is believed to be vastly higher than the official figures suggest. There is no way of knowing the true figure, as relatively few people are tested.
Meanwhile, a variety of new resistant pathogens are waiting in the wings. In September 2006, a variation of Staphylococcus aureus that produces a toxin called Panton-Valentine leukocidin (PVL) claimed its first British victims. Since then, anxiety over this threat has escalated. The pathogen selectively attacks the young rather than the old; it gets into bones and joints, causing crippling damage.
A multi-drug-resistant version of a common food-poisoning bug, ESBL (extended-spectrum beta-lactamase) E coli, is also causing anxiety. First identified in the 1980s, it has spread steadily to cause an average of 30,000 cases of blood poisoning and urinary-tract infections a year.
Although it has officially been blamed for 57 deaths so far, the true total is believed to be many thousands. Government scientists think the source is meat and milk, colonised by superbugs as a result of overuse of agricultural antibiotics.
Health Direct laments the disaster that is labour’s superbug strategy. Which causes between 3 and 4 times the number of deaths compared to UK traffic accidents.