ANTIBIOTIC resistance is on the rise in the form of superbugs that are difficult to treat.
Overuse and inappropriate antibiotic use is responsible for the emergence and spread of these bugs, says UNSW's Dr Peter Taylor, assistant director of microbiology at the Prince of Wales and St George Hospitals.
The other contentious point is to do with the liberal use of antibiotics in veterinary medicine and agriculture (meat production) globally that leads to unwitting transfer of antibiotic-resistant strains with our food, he says.
While the solution may be new antibiotics that deal with new strains of bacteria, that too is problematic.
New antibiotics to treat infections are slow to come on the market because they are not the money spinners that, say, drugs to treat cholesterol are (see fact box).
Compare the profits on antibiotics to the cost of getting one new medicine approved for use, say researchers.
It's estimated to be $1.4 billion, with 12 to 15 years of research and development.
Antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis is on the rise and, at the same time, the World Health Organisation has issued a warning about a new strain of gonorrhoea that is antibiotic resistant and is spreading around the world.
Medicines Australia has reported that already, 7000 people die each year from drug-resistant bacteria - such as golden staph infections - which is about 20 Australians a day.
While health authorities are seriously concerned about these new bugs and medics are trying to promote more government action on the issue, right now caution and prevention is key.
In Europe a multi-national surveillance program of superbugs provides trending data, says Dr Taylor.
"There is a global program on TB and multi-drug resistance, as that is a very important disease," he says.
"Similarly there is one for gonorrhoea that originated from and continues in Australia."
More research funds are needed, however, if these programs are to stay one step ahead of superbugs, or even catch them up.
Certainly it is difficult to know what precautions to take to avoid a staph infection.
Many of these infections are caught in hospitals where staph has been able to sneak its way in.
On the gonorrhoea front, safe sex might be an old message but never has it been more relevant.
Figures from the University of New South Wales, show gonorrhoea cases went up 25% last year, compared to 2010. In fact gonorrhoea peaked at more than 10,000 cases.
Health authorities advise either practising abstinence, using a condom every time you have sex or being in a relationship with a monogamous partner who has been screened for sexually transmitted diseases.
As for the future, our hopes must lie in the ability of authorities to keep track of superbugs and pharmaceutical companies being given enough incentive to make the development of new antibiotics attractive.
Top medicines by sales globally
Lipitor - cholesterol lowering $13,288 million
Plavix - antiplatelet agent $9,100 million
Nexium - gastric reflux disease $8,236 million
Seretide - asthma medication $8,099 million
Seroque - bipolar disorder $6,012 million
Enbrel - rheumatoid arthritis $5863 million
Remicade - rheumatoid arthritis $5453 million
Crestor - cholesterol lowering $5383 million
Zyprexa - anti-psychotic $5357 million
Humira - rheumatoid arthritis, $5032 million
Avastin - anti-cancer $5015 million
Singulair - asthma $4986 million
Source: Medicines Australia
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