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Preventing the superbug apocalypse


16 October 2013

Everyday activities such as kissing, touching and sharing food can lead to the spread of a new kind of superbug that is as dangerous as it is resistant.

At a free public talk hosted by the University of Sydney this Wednesday, Professor Jon Iredell and Associate Professor Tom Gottlieb from the University's Sydney Medical School will present Preventing the superbug apocalypse. The lecture will be chaired by Dr Vicky Sheppeard, Director of Communicable Diseases at NSW Health.

Professor Jon Iredell believes antibiotic control and antibiotic resistance needs to be as high a priority as regulating tobacco and managing global warming.

"Many people are familiar with the real life stories of flesh eating superbugs like golden staph," he says.

"These are known as gram positive bacteria and through initiatives such as aggressive campaigns for good hospital hygiene, we are starting to get them under better control.

"But we are now facing a new threat from what is known as gram negative bacteria. Gram negative bacteria are found in the gut of humans and can be very easily spread by simple everyday actions such as kissing, touching and sharing food.

"If bacteria such as E.coli - that once were thought to do nothing more than play a harmonious role in our gut to keep us healthy - pick up resistance or virulence genes then we are more likely to run into trouble with them. These gram negative bacteria can become extraordinarily resistant when they acquire genetic material that enables them to defeat all of the antibiotics that we would normally use, even in a hospital.

"Septic shock, caused by severe infection, now kills more people a year than bowel and breast cancer, and three times as many people as die on our roads.
"I am leading a team at Sydney Medical School that is trying to better understand these bugs as well as develop ways to rapidly diagnosis and treat patients. If we can make a diagnosis within a few hours of the onset of a severe gram negative infection there is an 80 percent chance of recovery.

"If there's a delay of say 12 hours, there's only around a 10 per cent change of survival," Professor Iredell says.

Associate Professor Gottlieb will outline his worst case scenario - what will happen if we keep creating superbugs.

"Antibiotics were the miracle cure, the product of post-World War II optimism, but the power of that miracle is vanishing," Associate Professor Gottlieb says.

"Continued improper use of antibiotics could mean that 2030 is the new 1930. A return to a pre-antibiotic era could mean that the everyday medical procedures we've come to rely on - prostate biopsies, management of cancer, hip replacement surgery - might be too risky because we will not be able to reliably prevent and treat infections.

"In Australia we know that 50 percent of antibiotic use in hospitals, when reviewed, is judged as inappropriate. That statistic is larger in the wider community.

"Doctors need to change the way they prescribe antibiotics by considering the impact on the greater society rather than just the benefit to the individual. Consumers also need to change their expectations.

"The days of taking antibiotics with a 'just-in-case' mind-set must end.

"Antibiotic misuse is a global problem and it's not confined to medicine. In the United States 70 percent of antibiotics are used in farm and livestock production to boost growth, not control infection. This shows up the folly that is all of our own making."

Preventing the superbug apocalypse is being presented by the Sydney Medical School in conjunction with Sydney Ideas, Westmead Millennium Institute and the University's Marie Bashir Institute.

The talk is the fourth in a series of medicine lectures being hosted by the University every Wednesday until 27 November entitled 21st Century Medicine Lecture Series: today's research, tomorrow's healthcare.


Details

Title: Preventing the superbug apocalypse
Date: Wednesday 16 October
Time: 6pm-7.30pm
Speakers: Professor Jon Iredell, Professor, Sydney Medical School and Director
of Infectious Diseases, Westmead Hospital
Associate Professor Tom Gottlieb, Clinical Associate Professor, Sydney Medical School and Senior Staff Specialist, Concord Hospital
Venue: PricewaterhouseCoopers, Level 10, 201 Sussex Street, Sydney
Information: Preventing the Superbug Apocalypse
Event contact: Tina Burge 02 9114 1309, 0422 915 112, tina.burge@sydney.edu.au

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Media contacts: Rachel Gleeson 02 9351 4630, 0481 004 782, rachel.gleeson@sydney.edu.au or Jenny Eather 0478 303 173, jenny.eather@sydney.edu.au