This news story was published in the World News section of the Super Science issue (issue 28), as one of the most important science stories of the past few months.
The discoverer of penicillin, Alexander Fleming, foretold the problems of antibiotic resistance during his Nobel Prize speech in 1945. Less than a century later, drug-resistant bugs can already be found in every region of the world.
According to a recent report by the World Health Organisation (WHO), this situation will bring disastrous global health consequences unless significant action is taken urgently.
In recent years, a growing number of pathogens have stopped responding to the standard antimicrobials that were used to combat them. The WHO report found very high rates of resistance in the bacteria that commonly cause infections in hospitals and in the community.
In short, some of the most effective weapons we had against common diseases have been rendered worthless. This means infections are harder to control, the risk of the spread of infection to others increases, illnesses and hospital stays are prolonged, and doctors are increasingly forced to turn to last resort treatments.
Resistance is caused by the rapid evolution of bacteria but much of the responsibility for resistance lies in the abuse and misuse of antimicrobials. Doctors overprescribing antimicrobials, patients failing to take their full treatment, and farmers feeding them to animals, all mean resistance is happening much faster than expected.
Last year, the UK introduced a five-year plan to improve the use of antibiotics, shore up surveillance of resistant microbes and develop tests for infections. The WHO encourages these measures and emphasises the crucial need to strengthen collaboration on global coordinated surveillance.
Jeremy Farrar, head of the Wellcome Trust, and Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, have urged world leaders to create an international body, based on the structure of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to systematise evidence and mobilise government sectors and society as a whole. This is a global problem that requires a global response; the achievements of modern medicine are at stake.