Changing our ways: protecting our antibiotic future

06 Aug 2014

Written by Professor Dame Sally Davies

The possibility of a post-antibiotic world has been a growing concern of the international medical community for many years. Our over-reliance on antibiotics to hold back infections has been exposed. A significant drop in the number of newly discovered antibiotics, coupled with habitual overuse, has seen our ability to defend ourselves from bacterial infection increasingly compromised.

The truth of our predicament is that we are now at increasing risk of developing infections that simply cannot be treated. If we do not take action, the next few decades will see serious infection becoming a common and dangerous risk for even the simplest medical processes.

Our overlapping international economies, combined with our dense city environments has enabled resistance to spread rapidly from person to person, from nation to nation. Controlling this spread will require global cooperation and awareness. I believe that resistance to antibiotics needs to be understood like global warming – it is vital that we are all aware of the nature of the threat and educated about how every one of us can make a difference.

We have to attack resistance on many fronts. Better hygiene practices are essential and have been proven effective in reducing infection in health environments. Drug development, although crucial, is also long-term and expensive. We need a way to counter resistance directly. Experimentation with bacteriophages, seeking to infect the bacteria themselves with viruses, has been promising, but resistance will not wait for the lab to catch up. We need to limit antibiotic use and ensure proper use.

The core aim of the Longitude Prize antibiotics challenge is to provide a key and urgent leap forward as soon as possible. We want to incentivise the creation of a new diagnostic method that can identify, primarily, if an infection is bacterial or viral.

Too often patients are prescribed antibiotics as a precaution when they have viral infections which do not respond to antibiotics. It is vital to our future health that the giving of a prescription should not be either too casual or indeed, too cautionary but conclusively evidenced by a precise, rapid and inexpensive method of diagnosis.

As a member of the Longitude committee, I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who voted and made their voice heard. I am looking forward to working with everyone, particularly my fellow committee members and scientists on refining the challenge, and to hearing your solutions.

If you can’t wait to get involved, the Longitude Prize Open Review needs your expertise to refine the challenge criteria – have your say and help us to build a prize that can make a real impact.