The “whole span of modern medicine” is under threat because antibiotics are being overused, a leading European expert has warned.

Organ transplants, hip replacements, cancer chemotherapy, intensive care and neonatal care for premature babies, all of which need antibiotics to prevent bacterial infection, will no longer be possible “if we lose it with antibiotics,” according to Dominique Monnet, senior expert at the scientific advice unit at the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).

Approximately 400,000 infections in Europe each year, and some 25,000 deaths, are caused by the six most common “superbugs,” including methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). An average day in hospital in Europe costs 366 euros, and these superbug infections currently add some 900 million euros each year to hospital costs, plus a further 600 million euros annually in lost productivity, it is estimated.

November 18 has been designated European Antibiotic Awareness Day, which will aim to raise awareness about the threat to public health of antibiotic resistance and how to use antibiotics responsibly.

“The latest data confirms that across the European Union the number of patients infected by resistant bacteria is increasing and that antibiotic resistance is a major threat to public health,” says the ECDC.

However, it adds, responsible use of antibiotics can help stop resistant bacteria from developing and help keep antibiotics effective for the use of future generations.

The ECDC is also due to publish this month a new survey of intensive care specialists across Europe, which reveals that 21% of those responding said they had seen, within the last six months, three or more patients suffering from infections that were either totally or almost totally resistant to antibiotics. 8% of the specialists had seen more than 10 such patients over the period.

Last week, the Centre welcomed the new EU/US transatlantic taskforce on antibiotic resistance issues, which will support existing joint working between ECDC and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In a statement, the White House noted that a focus for the new taskforce will be strategies for improving the pipeline of new antimicrobial drugs, “which could be better addressed by intensified cooperation between” the US and Europe.

- In September, a statement issued jointly by the ECDC and the European Medicines Agency (EMEA) said that a European and global strategy is urgently needed to address the gap between the burden of infections which are due to multidrug-resistant bacteria and the development of new antibiotics to tackle the problem. In particular, there is a lack of new antibiotics with new targets or mechanisms of action against multidrug-resistant Gram-negative bacteria. Only two such agents with new or possibly new targets and documented activity were identified, both in early phases of development, said the agencies.