I beg to move,
That this House
has considered World Antibiotics Awareness Week.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. Exactly one century ago, Ernest Rutherford split the atom and humanity entered the nuclear age. The groundbreaking discovery represented a momentous step forward for human progress, but at the same time it unleashed a challenge for those beyond the laboratory and academia—the avoidance of mutual assured destruction. As this debate is about World Antibiotics Awareness Week, some might wonder why I started with the splitting of the atom, but I believe that there is an equally strong argument for the aforementioned period to be referred to as the antibiotic age. It was 11 years after the splitting of the atom that Sir Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, here in this very city of London.
No one can deny the profound impact of antibiotics on medicine, and their widespread use represents a watershed moment in our evolutionary story. However, as Fleming himself understood, shortly after making his discovery, giant leaps in scientific progress produced wholly new challenges. As antibiotics were readily available, it appeared that we had invented miracle drugs of sorts. The snag is that we now face the real and severe threat of antimicrobial resistance.
Across the globe this week, scientists and healthcare professionals are hosting a wide range of events to make antibiotic resistance a globally recognised health issue. I am delighted that we as parliamentarians are here today to represent the role that lawmakers and Governments will play in facing the challenge of antibiotic and antimicrobial resistance. The week is also intended to raise awareness of the need to preserve the power of antibiotics through appropriate use, to increase recognition that individuals, health and agricultural professionals, and Governments must play in tackling antibiotic resistance, and to encourage behavioural change and convey the message that simple actions can make a difference.
While the threat of antibiotic resistance is often considered a doomsday scenario—one might say a medical Armageddon—we must remember that that menace is all too deadly today. Currently, 700,000 people die each year from drug-resistant infections; the future threat is touted as being so severe and extreme, not because we are not living with the effects today but because of the truly appalling potential scale of the problem if we do not take co-ordinated action. If we do not act now, antimicrobial resistance will be responsible for 10 million deaths per year by 2050. That is more than the number of people worldwide who were killed by cancer in 2015. It is nearly impossible to put a number on the lives that have been saved by antibiotics; some sources put the figure at roughly 2 million, but it is entirely conceivable that we may arrive at a position where the balance tips, and antibiotics pose a greater threat than a remedy.
As I have said previously in this House, we run the risk of returning to a medical dark age, where routine operations such as hip operations cannot be carried out, and infections that are standard today become deadly. This week, the British Society for Antimicrobial Chemotherapy published a report on behalf of the all-party parliamentary group on antibiotics. The report, the briefing for which has been sent to all Members of the House, considers the AMR action plans and strategies set out by the World Health Organisation, the European Union and the UK, and asks, crucially: “Has the world lived up to the challenge?”
The overarching theme of the report is that future strategies to combat antibiotic resistance should incorporate specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timely—SMART—targets. When the stakes are 10 million deaths each year within four decades, it is easy to become lost in the scale of response that that merits; but as is so often the case, a coherent and clear approach is our greatest weapon. I call on the Government to ensure that all steps are taken to counter AMR and explicitly to incorporate those SMART targets I listed. I believe there is much to be gained from making that standard practice and removing any doubt. I am sure that colleagues will be encouraged to read in the report that
“the UK has taken significant steps to meet the objectives of the EU Action Plan, which in turn satisfies the WHO Europe Strategic Action Plan.”
There are two aspects, however, where our country needs to up its game. First, we need to address education and public awareness, so it is entirely fitting that we meet today during World Antibiotic Awareness Week, an occasion aimed directly at bolstering an understanding of resistance and the threat it poses to humanity. We need to be forthright in promoting the “four rights” when consuming antibiotics: the right drug, the right dose, the right time and the right duration. A survey carried out across Europe in 2016 indicated that knowledge about AMR remains low, and antibiotic consumption has decreased by only 6% over the last seven years. To address that, the British Society for Antimicrobial Chemotherapy advocates the use of simple and clear language in all awareness-promoting material. There is a direct recommendation of
“monitoring the efficacy of education campaigns through online channels.”
Fleming himself was once quoted as saying that the best remedy for a common cold was a dram of whiskey.