The prospect of a world with limited treatment options for common infections is difficult to comprehend given the reassurance antibiotics have provided for more than half a century.

More complications post-surgery, lengthier illnesses, having to use more expensive or potentially toxic drugs, and more deaths could be expected in middle to high income countries.

The situation would be more foreboding for developing countries with limited resources already facing the increased burden of infectious diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.

UQ Medicine is at the sharp end of translating knowledge about antibiotic resistant organisms into optimal prevention and treatments.

Infectious diseases expert Professor David Paterson leads these efforts as Director of the Centre for Clinical Research.

The UQ alumnus is internationally recognised for his research focused on molecular and clinical epidemiology of infections with antibiotic resistant organisms, and as a consultant infectious diseases clinician.

Health professional are worried for their most vulnerable patients.

“Think about the thousands of patients who have compromised immune systems because they are undergoing chemotherapy,” Professor Paterson says.

“Remote Indigenous communities with a significantly higher incidence of some infectious diseases will be at risk, along with patients on dialysis for kidney failure."

Professor David Paterson

"But even simple surgeries any of us might be faced with like hip replacements, appendectomies or caesarean sections would carry a much greater risk.”

In September, a World Health Organisation (WHO) report showed a shortage of new antibiotics under development to combat the growing threat.

“There are now drug resistant strains of organisms that cause hospital-acquired infections, gonorrhoea, tuberculosis, pneumonia and urinary tract infections to name a few,” Professor Paterson says.

“Without new options coming through, we need to manage our current antibiotics to preserve those ‘last line’ drugs for when they are most needed.

"Our researchers are performing randomised trials to establish clinical guidelines and rapid testing technologies to enable doctors to use the most appropriate drug to treat the particular strain of bacteria involved in infections.”

Surveillance will be key to delaying the spread of drug resistant bacteria within Australia.

UQ is an active participant in health networks which are monitoring for any outbreaks.

This allows health authorities to track where an isolate originated, to liaise with treating hospitals where appropriate and confirm control measures have been taken.

And according to Professor Paterson, the problem needs to be addressed with a ‘one health’ approach.

“Antibiotics are widely used as growth promoters for food producing animals and this can be another opportunity for bacteria to develop mechanisms to escape their effect.

Professor David Paterson

"We are working with colleagues in veterinary sciences to
see what can be done to reduce antibiotic use in farm

Experts agree that it is difficult to predict how antimicrobial resistance will develop in the years ahead.

A commonly held view is that without significant inroads, superbugs could kill more people per year than cancer
by 2050.

This story is featured in the Summer 2017 edition of UQMedicine Magazine. View the latest edition here. Or to listen, watch, or read more stories from UQ’s Faculty of Medicine visit our content hub, MayneStream.