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Health fears grow as antibiotics lose their effectiveness

By Lisa Smyth

Northern Ireland's top doctor has warned that infections currently routinely treated by antibiotics could kill – with cancer patients and premature babies among those most at risk.

Dr Michael McBride, the Chief Medical Officer for Northern Ireland, has reiterated comments made by his English counterpart that growing resistance to antibiotics is one of the greatest health threats we currently face.

The British Medical Association (BMA) in Northern Ireland also said the situation is becoming so bad that in future doctors here may be forced to return to radical treatments used in the early part of last century to treat patients.

Dr Sara Hedderwick of the BMA (NI) consultants committee and a consultant in infectious diseases at Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital, said: "If we don't address this we will face serious issues.

"In the past we would have treated tuberculosis (TB) patients by putting them in a sanitorium and that then progressed to chopping out bits of their lungs. For the past 60 years, we have had effective antibiotics to treat TB but as resistance to these drugs grows there is no doubt there will be cases where we return to the old treatments, such as cutting out parts of lungs.

"There are already places in the world where that is already happening and it could happen in Northern Ireland."

Dr Hedderwick said she faces challenges treating patients due to growing resistance to antibiotics.

"We are already seeing cases of multiple drug resistant TB in Northern Ireland and we have had people with other drug resistant bacterial infections where it is very difficult to find antibiotics to treat them.

"There are some patients where we have very, very few options."

Dr McBride said it is essential the public acknowledge the threat posed by antibiotic resistance.

He said as the problem continues to develop, more and more antibiotics will become useless, and that that will have devastating consequences for people most susceptible to infection – those whose immune system is compromised, such as cancer patients, people who have had transplants and babies in neo-natal wards.

He said: "We need to take concerted action to safeguard antibiotics by ensuring they are only prescribed when required, that the correct antibiotic is prescribed and in the correct dose.

"It is important that courses of antibiotics are finished once begun and I also want the public to appreciate that just because their doctor doesn't prescribe an antibiotic it doesn't mean they aren't being treated properly."


Tuberculosis (TB) is a bacterial infection spread through coughs or sneezes of an infected person, mainly affecting the lungs. A TB infection can usually be cured. Most people will take antibiotics, usually for six months. Some forms of TB are resistant to certain antibiotics. If you are infected with drug-resistant TB, treatment can last up to 18 months.

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