Scientist calls for help to fight superbugs

August 30, 2017

Scientist calls for help to fight superbugs

Dr Siouxsie Wiles. Photo: supplied

A prominent antibiotics researcher is calling out the Government on a lack of foresight with infectious diseases, saying "superbugs" could be killing people within years and common operations could become highly dangerous.

Dr Siouxsie Wiles, of the University of Auckland, gave a public talk at the Auckland War Memorial Museum recently about the increase in bacteria that have become resistant to antibiotics that would normally kill them.

She told the meeting too little funding had been provided for what was a serious issue and that New Zealand needed to act fast.

Health minister Jonathon Coleman denied the Government, which recently published a “antimicrobial resistance action plan”, was not doing enough.

He said large pharmaceutical companies needed to play their part.

Dr Wiles said new antibiotics were needed to continue fighting off bugs but the supply of new drugs was estimated to run out by 2025.

If the prediction was correct, that meant unless urgent action was taken, doctors would not be able to treat infections in eight years, she said.

Hip replacements, caesarean sections, organ transplants, and many other common medical procedures would become very high risk.

Earlier this year, the World Health Organisation said private pharmaceutical companies could not solve the problem alone and governments needed to step up.

Dr Wiles said New Zealand wasn’t doing its part. “The National government has shown where their priorities lie – it doesn’t appear to me to be in dealing with infectious diseases.

“Among the decision makers, infectious diseases don’t have that high priority. And I don’t know how to change that.”

She said despite the potential for scientific discovery in New Zealand, there was no funding “ring-fenced” for antibiotic research.

Discovering new antibiotics involved studying the environment.

“The vast majority of antibiotics that are used in the clinic today come originally from microorganisms – bacteria and fungi.

“We’ve got this bank of 10,000 fungi that has never been screened for antibiotics. Lots of them are from New Zealand, and given that New Zealand has plants and animals found nowhere else in the world, we’re hoping that our fungi will be the same and will be a little bit different.

“People are going to start dying in large numbers. If we don’t do something about it now, we are really going to be stuck. And we can do something about it.

“But we’re very underfunded.”

The Cure Kids charity has started a crowd-funding page so Dr Wiles can push ahead.

But Dr Wiles didn’t understand the lack of wider support.

“Maybe that’ll all change in five years’ time when suddenly all the patients are dying of [infectious diseases].

“Maybe it’s just because we’re at the cusp of it, where those of us who see it know this disaster is coming, but for everyone else it’s just not quite real enough yet.”

She said people could start dying because of a lack of antibiotics within a year.

“It could be a year, it could be five years, it could be 10 years.”

Dr Coleman said in a statement released to TWN that the Government did recognise the importance of addressing antimicrobial resistance (AMR) and had recently published the New Zealand Antimicrobial Resistance Action Plan.

The plan was a “living document” and was expected to adapt to progress and available resources in the future, he said.

“One of the priority areas within the action plan is to support and promote national priorities for research on antimicrobial resistance, antimicrobial consumption and stewardship in human health, animal health and agriculture,” he said.

“However, the action plan recognises that while research and development is vital, alone, it cannot solve the problem.

“AMR is a global issue that requires a global response. New Zealand is a relatively small player and the development of new antimicrobials will likely require input from larger pharmaceutical manufacturers.

“In the most recent Health Research Council’s annual funding round, a study was funded which will consider how one of the world’s most problematic superbugs survives antibiotic treatment during infection.”

Readers who would like to support the Cure Kids campaign can sponsor a fungus here.

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