News, Culture & Society

Sally Davies warns of ‘post-antibiotic apocalypse’

The world is in danger of a ‘post-antibiotic apocalypse’ unless more is done to tackle superbugs, the chief medical officer has warned.

Professor Dame Sally Davies said that if antibiotics lose their effectiveness it will spell ‘the end of modern medicine’.

Without the drugs, caesarean sections, cancer treatments and hip replacements would become incredibly ‘risky’, she stressed.  

It is estimated that the rise of super-bugs will kill 10 million people each year by 2050, unless scientific breakthroughs are made immediately. 

Dame Sally told the Press Association: ‘We really are facing, if we don’t take action now, a dreadful post-antibiotic apocalypse.

Professor Dame Sally Davies said that if antibiotics lose their effectiveness it will spell ‘the end of modern medicine’

‘I don’t want to say to my children that I didn’t do my best to protect them and their children.

‘Not to be able to effectively treat infections means that caesarean sections, hip replacements, modern surgery, is risky. Modern cancer treatment is risky and transplant medicine becomes a thing of the past.’

Health experts have previously warned that resistance to antimicrobial drugs could cause a bigger threat to mankind than cancer.

In recent years, the UK has led a drive to raise global awareness of the threat posed to modern medicine by antimicrobial resistance (AMR).

Repeated warnings

Dame Sally, who has repeatedly warned of the dangers of superbugs, said that because AMR is ‘hidden’, people ‘just let it pass’.

She has previously described the ‘catastrophic’ threat of superbugs as severe as terrorism and is on par with climate change. 


A Nevada woman has been killed by a superbug that proved resistant to every antibiotic available in the US, a report revealed in January.

Doctors tried to cure the 70-year-old patient with 26 antibiotics after she was admitted to an acute care hospital in mid-August 2016.

But nothing stood up against the aggressive bacteria. She died two weeks later of septic shock.

The unprecedented case was revealed in the Center for Disease Control’s Morbidity And Mortality Report.

Four other patients were treated in the US for antibiotic resistance in 2016. But this case proved pivotal for the agency.

The woman was admitted to a hospital in Reno, Nevada, after an extended trip in India. During her trip, she fractured her right thigh bone.

Over the course of a number of hospital visits in India, this developed into an infection of the right hip and thigh bone, leaving her in incredible pain. 

Dame Sally Davies has also written to GPs warning that gonorrhoea, Britain’s second most common STI after chlamydia, could become an ‘untreatable disease’. 

The comments come as the Government and the Wellcome Trust, along with others, have organised a ‘call to action’ meeting for health officials from around the globe.

At the meeting in Berlin, officials will also announce a new project which will map the spread of death and disease caused by drug-resistant ‘superbugs’.

‘A serious issue’ 

Dame Sally added: ‘This AMR is with us now, killing people. This is a serious issue that is with us now, causing deaths.

‘If it was anything else people would be up in arms about it. But because it is hidden they just let it pass.

‘It does not really have a “face” because most people who die of drug resistant infections, their families just think they died of an uncontrolled infection.

‘It will only get worse unless we take strong action everywhere across the globe.

‘We need some real work on the ground to make a difference or we risk the end of modern medicine.’ 

Superbugs: The facts 

Around 700,000 people around the world die yearly due to drug-resistant infections including tuberculosis (TB), HIV and malaria.

For decades, antibiotics have been so overused by GPs and hospital staff that the bacteria have evolved to become resistant. 

Doctors claim medicines including penicillin no longer work on sore throats, skin infections and more seriously, pneumonia.

In addition to existing drugs becoming less effective, there have only been one or two new antibiotics developed in the last 30 years. 

In September the World Health Organisation warned that antibiotics are ‘running out’ as a report found a ‘serious lack’ of new drugs in the development pipeline.


Dame Sally warned that if the global community did not act then the progress which had been made in Britain may be ‘undermined’.

She added: ‘We use more than I would like and we estimate that about one in three or one in four prescriptions in primary care are probably not needed.

‘But other countries use vastly more antibiotics in the community and they need to start doing as we are, which is reducing usage.’

The Wellcome Trust, along with the UN Foundation, has conducted analysis on global action plans to tackle superbugs.

The research found that while 151 of 195 countries are developing a plan, just one in five commit to reducing antibiotic use, improving hygiene and preserving antibiotics of last resort.

And only 5 per cent are adequately funded and monitored, Tim Jinks, head of drug resistant infections at the Wellcome Trust, said.

He added: ‘While we have seen progress in recognition around the world of the threat that superbugs pose, we need to retain momentum. 

‘High-level commitments must quickly become action. Together, we can stop superbugs undermining the whole of modern medicine.’