Dr Zahid Chauhan: Penicillin's creator foresaw the antibiotic crisis we face today

Nine decades on from the discovery of penicillin, GPs are under major pressure over antibiotic prescribing - and more needs to be done to find a new generation of medicines, warns Manchester GP Dr Zahid Chauhan.

This September marked the 90th anniversary of arguably the most important health discovery – penicillin.

I am sure every schoolchild still learns how through a combination of genius and accident, Sir Alexander Fleming developed a treatment that has saved millions of lives across the globe, when he uncovered bacteria-killing mould in an unwashed petri dish.

But since Fleming’s discovery, drug companies haven't done enough to build upon his genius. We also now have a public who not only view antibiotics as a magic cure-all but have - in their desire to get their hands on Fleming’s magic potion - further dented the reputation of GPs.

Antibiotic prescribing

My experience is typical of that endured by many family doctors today. My occasional refusal to dispense antibiotics – so as to preserve the patient’s health and make sure bacteria in their bodies don’t become resistant to the drugs – has resulted in me being threatened with a disastrous online review of my practice, being reported to my MP or the GMC, and even violence.

But it is not just ill-informed patients I am bemoaning here. When people are put under undue pressure to return to work by unscrupulous employers, no wonder they are seeking a quick fix - that sometimes leads them to buying online. And we also seem to have developed a culture where sickness simply isn’t accepted as a normal part of life.

GPs are sitting ducks at present. If in doubt, certain politicians shout at primary care providers, when they should be looking elsewhere. I am a passionate supporter of tackling antimicrobial resistance, because my training and experience tells me what is best for my patient. But I am not being backed-up in that aim by decision-makers who offer neither carrot or stick to big pharma to develop new drugs, now.

Incentives on the one hand might help. Taxation on the other might cajole. Frankly we have reached the tragic situation where a patient of mine might go through the hell of serious surgery - say for a heart condition or cancer enabled by a breakthrough treatment – only to succumb to a resistant superbug because we haven’t developed new antibiotics. Madness.

Health risk

Irresponsible animal husbandry and poor environmental management - antibiotic residue is increasingly being found in rivers - has also contributed to this potential health Armageddon.

All of which is extremely unfair on Fleming. Upon receiving the Nobel Prize in 1945 - his discovery incidentally helped save lives at the Normandy landings - he actually predicted that unless we built upon his discovery, our bodies would one day become resistant to antibiotics.

It is the overuse and abuse of his life-saving discovery that has created a crisis, which could see us return to an age where hospital operations will be cancelled for fear of infection and an infected scratch could prove fatal.

We need to put patient care first and find ways to help GPs avoid unfair pressure to prescribe antibiotics to safeguard the legacy of one of our country’s greatest healthcare pioneers.

  • Dr Zahid Chauhan is a national health campaigner and the founder of the Homeless-Friendly health programme. Learn more about his work at www.zahidchauhan.co.uk or follow him on Twitter @ChauhanZahid 

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