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Lord Donoughue: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his comments. I acknowledge his great experience in this area. We are looking at precisely that proposal. I have asked officials to consider how we can make greater use of the ESAs. Some areas appear to be less interested in the scheme than others. Some areas are oversubscribed and some are undersubscribed. We are considering the matter.
Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior rose to move, That this House take note of the Report of the Science and Technology Committee, Resistance to Antibiotics and other antimicrobial agents (7th Report, HL Paper 81).
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I express my appreciation for the honour it has been to chair this committee on a topic of wide public health and also professional interest. It is a global problem as we shall hear as we proceed with this debate. The international nature of this problem can be adduced from the fairly extensive evidence we have received from this country and from overseas.
At this point I pay tribute to people in the United States Government, the research institutes in Washington, the Centres for Disease Control in Atlanta and the School of Medicine, Tuft's University, Boston, which received a deputation from the sub-committee and were extraordinarily helpful to us. I thank them formally for their hospitality and their great assistance in our deliberations. To our specialist advisers, Professor Harold Lambert and Professor Richard Wise, I convey the grateful thanks of the sub-committee for their input, deliberations, guidance and their role in producing the draft report. Finally, I cannot praise too highly the committee Clerk, Andrew Makower, whose ability with words and concepts can be appreciated fully only when one serves as a chairman of a committee such as this.
Those are strong words, but we meant them to be strong words to draw the attention of the House and the Government to the situation that faces us. Antibiotics have been used for 50 years or more. They are, of course, the wonder drugs. We hear about them every day. They have changed the practice of human and animal medicine across the world. The ravages of bacterial infection, which continued into the late 1950s, no longer occur. However, we are aware that there is an increasing worldwide alarming growth in the number of cases where humans do not respond as anticipated to the use of antibiotics to treat certain diseases. This may lead to severe ill health and indeed to the death of patients.
The situation in the animal field is not as serious as that in human medicine, but there is concern there too. In particular there is concern that antibiotic use in animals may in one way or another--I shall mention that in due course--lead to problems with treating humans because of the transfer of resistance to human pathogens.
The concept of eventual resistance to an antibiotic is, of course, not new. Even after the development of penicillin many years ago, penicillinase, an enzyme which destroys penicillin, was identified and it was predicted that resistance to antibiotics would be a problem. That has proved eventually to be the case with almost every antibiotic, although that has varied as regards the duration of use and the concentration of the antibiotic concerned. Now we have a global pool of bacteria, many commensal and not pathogenic in nature, with resistant genes in the pool that can transfer
One may ask how serious is this resistance? The major concern, whatever the source of resistance, is the threat to human health. I believe that one should always keep that before one. In the absence of action to reduce the prevalence of resistance, there is the prospect of returning to the pre-antibiotic era. The reasons for resistance are several, but in the medical field unjustified prescriptions of antibiotics, especially the inappropriate use of antibiotics for mild to moderate viral infections such as a sore throat, the common cold or an earache, play a part in that resistance. It has been represented to us that depending on the part of the country one is in, between five to 50 per cent. of antibiotic prescriptions are unjustified.
We recognise in the report the dilemma faced by doctor and patient where the doctor must advise on the prudent use of antibiotics when faced with the consistent demands of the patient, especially if that patient also has a child. Indeed, in certain parts of the country, and certainly overseas, defensive prescribing of antibiotics is the rule as it is seen as a way of avoiding litigation should an apparently mild infirmity not treated with antibiotics eventually turn out to be something serious. If that were to occur, major litigation may arise. However, that problem is not only encountered by the general practitioner treating patients in his surgery; major problems also arise in hospitals with hospital facilities and procedures under severe pressure because of financial constraints, inadequate infection control teams, patient overcrowding, inadequate training, and so on.
Examples of the importance of antibiotic resistance include multi-drug-resistant salmonella. Some salmonella species are resistant to eight to 10 antibiotics. Staphylococcus aureus is a common commensal on the skin, but it can become resistant to methicillin and it is the "killer bug" about which we have heard so much in newspapers. In some hospitals, staphylococcus aureus will respond only to certain antibiotics such as vancomycin, and even then we have evidence that there are certain strains, in certain parts of the country, which have become vancomycin-resistant, and there is no fall-back position left.
Globally, we have other problems. Infections such as drug-resistant gonorrhoea and multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis, are extremely common overseas. One problem overseas, which we do not have in this country, relates to over-the-counter sales of antibiotics and the self-administration of antibiotics without prescription from a doctor.
One area where control is essential is the surveillance of antibiotic resistance. Surveillance is the intelligence system where policies are formulated, providing guidance for prescriptions and prescribing individuals, and assessing the success of control programmes. We found the support for surveillance--in, for example, the Public Health Laboratory Service--of concern as the Public Health Laboratory Service is suffering decreased
Similarly, a major control programme of surveillance occurs in the World Health Organisation which takes on a global programme. It, too, is under-funded. The United Kingdom has been supportive of that particular initiative and we hope that Her Majesty's Government will convince other governments in the European Union to lend the same sort of support as the United Kingdom gives.
I turn now to antibiotic use in animals in relation to resistance in man. That is an area of great controversy and has been so for some considerable time. Some 30 years ago, the Swann Committee, chaired by the then Lord Swann, looked at the issue of antibiotic use in animals, especially as growth promoters. It recommended that there should be an over-arching committee to look into antibiotic use in all areas--medical, veterinary, livestock and horticultural--to provide guidance to people in those areas. Unfortunately, that was not acted upon, but one of our recommendations is that such an over-arching committee be set up.
In 1997, the World Health Organisation convened a meeting in Berlin and concluded that the low level use of certain antibiotics did, in fact, pose a threat to the human use of antibiotics in therapy and suspected that there may be cross-resistance. Most recently, the House of Commons Select Committee on Agriculture recommended the banning of antibiotics as growth promoters.
Your Lordships' Select Committee did not go that far. It recognised that antibiotics were of value in the animal field and did not wish to recommend their withdrawal when they were used prudently and for clinical use, but it identified certain antibiotics where low-level use for growth promotion, for example, rendered their use inappropriate and imprudent. With regard to animal feed and growth promotion, there have been comments that to discontinue the use of antibiotics in growth promotion may well lead to severe animal health and welfare problems. Supporters of animal use for growth promotion point out that there is no documented case where use of antibiotics has been proven to cause treatment failure. However, there is increasing epidemiological and circumstantial evidence that that is, indeed, the case. Where human lives are at stake and at risk it is imprudent to dismiss that evidence. Absolute proof would require, to my mind, the fulfilment of Koch's postulates; namely, the isolation of the suspected organisms, the deliberate infection of a person with those organisms and the recovery of those organisms thereafter. That is not an undertaking that anyone would recommend.
I conclude by asking about the effect of the report on antibiotic use in different areas. I am happy to report that the Department of Health produced a document entitled The Path of Least Resistance, which is applicable to doctors and patients alike and gives very good guidance. The British Veterinary Association produced a working document on antibiotics in animals
Attention is being paid to the report. There is not the time to go over our 54 recommendations, but they include items for research. I feel that this report has stimulated action and that if action is continued it is less likely that antibiotic resistance will lead to serious human health problems and death; it is more likely that the complacency that we have identified will not continue and that adequate advice will be given to those who use and direct the use of antibiotics, both for humans and for animals.
Moved, That this House takes note of the Report of the Science and Technology Committee, Resistance to Antibiotics and other antimicrobial agents (7th Report, HL Paper 81).--(Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior.)
Lord Winston: My Lords, the hour is late and I shall be as brief as I can. This is a large and comprehensive report and it is not possible, or desirable, to go over every point in it. First, I thank our chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior, for conducting our inquiry in such an excellent way. He made it a most stimulating committee on which to serve. It was, indeed, a privilege. At a time when the House of Lords is being discussed, dissected and held under a microscope, our Select Committees in general show this House in an excellent light.
It is also relevant that many of your Lordships who sat on this committee are not molecular biologists and yet your impressive speed of grasp of the scientific aspects of what is a very technical subject was remarkable. That also shows the House in a very good light indeed.
Two weeks ago my son, who is just 17, went to the funeral of a girl of his own age. She had had a two or three-hour rash and a slight headache. By the time she was admitted to the Royal Free Hospital, she was dead. She had meningitis, of course. Members of the school in which my son is educated and this young girl had been treated with some prophylactic antibiotics, with penicillin. But imagine if that penicillin were not available to us or if those bacteria were resistant to that drug.
In the time available, I do not intend to deal with bacterial and microbial infections overseas, but they are a particular point and one could go on at great length about them. I will simply say, out of self-interest, that there are some things happening overseas which are relevant to British practice in terms of the common infections in this country.
One has to understand the nature of the bacterium. In ideal conditions it reproduces itself in about 20 minutes, so in one hour it has gone through three generations. In human evolution we have about 30 generations in a thousand years; we have 300 generations in 10,000 years; and of course new genes mutate slightly and change all the time. The bacterium can do that in seven days or faster. The problem is an organism which is capable of adapting to the things which are threatening it. That is the major and very urgent problem.
It is true, of course, that if we withdraw antibiotics some of the resistance will fall. As one witness pointed out to us, this is an arms race, but disarmament--that is, the removal of the antibiotics--is not an option. We would then be going back to the commonest cause of death worldwide generally; that is to say, infection.
It is true that we as a medical profession have not been particularly distinguished in many aspects. I note, for example, my own Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, which has a notable post-graduate function that deals with infection in common practice in obstetrics. There is remarkably little teaching about, or emphasis given to, the important common organisms which infect, for example, the vagina, such as streptococcus, and how they can become resistant. If it is true of my own college, believe me, it is also true of the other Royal Colleges that are responsible for post-graduate education in this country. It is something that we must, and can, do something about.
Medical education in general is poor. It is not particularly good even at undergraduate level. Too often microbiology is seen as a rather boring subject. Sadly, we heard evidence that there is a need to fill more places in microbiology at consultant level in hospitals.
We should not blame general practitioners. It is very easy to say that general practitioners over-prescribe. The general practitioner is in a difficult position. I have given your Lordships one anecdote; let me give another. When I was in training as a hospital registrar, like many people to earn a little extra money I became a locum as a general practitioner in Southend. On my second day in the practice a young woman came in with a child of about a year old. I think the child was in a buggy. She said, "He's not very well; he's a bit off-colour". I had been taught not to give antibiotics and I said, "Well, it's probably a viral infection", and I refused to give her antibiotics. But she wanted a prescription. Three hours later I was phoned for an emergency at that woman's house. I was told that the child was seriously ill. In fact the child was dead. I rushed over there and I remember
The point is that the general practitioner is in a difficult position with the pressure to give antibiotics. It is true that an antibiotic almost certainly would not have helped--in fact, the post-mortem did not show any evidence of bacteriological infection--but that, for a young doctor, does not make any difference. You wonder whether you should have given that antibiotic. The GP is very much in the front-line.
There is great pressure from parents. In the United States, for example, increasing numbers of working mothers are putting their children into day-care centres. They are under increasing pressure to give their not-very-well children an antibiotic. It has been calculated that about 25 per cent. of antibiotics in the USA are prescribed to children. This may be rising, because there are more working mothers and more children in day-centres, which in turn is an ideal way of exchanging infection. It is not a simple problem. There is no doubt that there is a need to recognise when it might be a bacteriological infection which could be treated by antibiotics and when it is a viral infection, where they would make no difference.
The committee found that there was an astonishing gap in regard to information. This Government have said that they are going to invest in information technology. I hope they do. It is desperately needed in the health service. We need much better scope for NHS surveillance. There is remarkably little information collected across the country about specific organisms which infect people and very little information about the practice of prescribing particular antibiotics. It is a serious lack in our medical practice and something that we need to understand. We do not have full information on the patterns of antibiotic prescription.
There is also a definite link to the pattern of over-bedding and overcrowding in hospitals--pressures that we have heard about from King's College Hospital. King's College calculates that about 6 to 7 per cent. of patients have a hospital-based infection. It told us that most hospitals do not have or publish that information because they do not have the IT or are not carrying out the surveillance which is needed. That is partly because they are embarrassed and partly because we have not invested in what is essential in modern healthcare.
It is shocking to me that the Public Health Laboratory Service has been chronically under-funded in the way that it has. I hope that we can have some recognition from the Government, one hopes this evening, that this will stop. The PHLS is an important way of gathering information. It has in the past been important in research; it is an important resource. It has been under-funded because of inflation and this needs to be adjusted.
While the Science and Technology Committee shows the House of Lords in a good light, I am shocked that we have just had a debate on agriculture and virtually every farmer in the House left the Chamber as we were about to discuss the critical issue that animals are being given antibiotics, very often in an uncontrolled way,
We have no evidence of how these growth promoters work. Why should we use an antibiotic? Let us look at other things. I believe it would be safer to use genetic engineering or to dose the animals with a cytokine. It is wrong to give animals these drugs unless they are really essential for their health and welfare. Of course, very often they are, but there must be much more careful regulation of this issue.
Finally, there is a need for more research. For example, we learnt that there is even need for research into rapid diagnosis. At present, in general the fastest we can get a diagnosis is within 48 hours--to find the bacterium and to find its specific resistance. There should be molecular ways, particularly through automation in the laboratory, to make this a much speedier process. Most pathological diagnosis has been automated, but automation has not yet happened much in microbiology. This could certainly be attained with modern molecular techniques. The R&D arm of the NHS can help a little, too, with carrying out more research in bacteriology, but there is need for basic research. Perhaps it would be a good idea for the research councils and the Wellcome Trust to consider some specific tranche of funding for this very important area of research.
This is a worldwide problem which needs to be addressed on a global scale. It is good to see the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, in the Chamber because it was her report on embryology which was so influential in making this country and also other countries take action to start to regulate embryology. We could be a model for many examples of healthcare. Certainly, we should consider being that model in the case of bacteriology and the control of antibiotic resistance.
Lord Perry of Walton: My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Winston, I found it a privilege to be a member of the sub-committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby. He was a splendid chairman and the committee ran like clockwork.
I found the report particularly alarming because I was a doctor during the pre-antibiotic era. I graduated in medicine in 1943 and my first job was as a casualty officer at the Dundee Royal Infirmary. Every morning, one of my duties was to assist in the surgical outpatients department and there I would see and examine 10, 15 or 20 patients with infected fingers--not a very serious problem, noble Lords might say, but in those days it was.
When the staphylococcus got through the skin and infected the finger it was usually treated with hot fomentations at home until it swelled up, became very red and throbbed with pain. Then the patient came to the outpatients department, where it was necessary to incise the finger to let out the pus. That was only the beginning because the patient would come every day to have the finger dressed until it had healed. It might take days or a week or more to heal. That was not the end
That was only one of the infections caused by the staphylococcus. I shall stick with the staphylococcus out of all the matters in the report because I should like to go through its history. Penicillin came into general use in the hospitals in about 1945 and transformed the situation. Someone with an infected finger was given the drug and in a day or two the infection was gone. It was magic. The antibiotic era had started but there were already, as noble Lords have heard, significant signs that antibiotics might not last for ever.
In the distant past mould and bacteria co-existed and the mould produced penicillin. Some of the bacteria, although not many, became resistant, probably by learning how to produce penicillinase. When the drug was given to patients the presence of the antibiotic selected out the resistant organisms because the susceptible ones were all killed off. That did not bother the patient, who got better anyway, but it did lead to passing the infection with the resistant organisms to other patients. That led to the spread of resistance. Now, more than 90 per cent. of staphylococci in the population have resistance to penicillin. That led the pharmaceutical chemists into making a host of different penicillins and trying to find one that would not show this resistance. In 1960, they finally managed with methicillin to find a penicillin variant which was not destroyed by penicillinase.
However, the bugs are very clever. They have more ways than one of developing resistance. This time it took rather longer. It was 1989 before a way was found to overcome the action of methicillin. By 1989 five per cent. of the isolates in this country were positive for what came to be known as methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA. The figure is now 32 per cent. of all infections in this country and in Japan it is 70 per cent.
Parallel to the search for variants of penicillin there was a continued search for new classes of antibiotics. There are about 160 antibiotics known today but only about 15 or 16 different classes. The others are variants of one class. It was as early as 1956 that the glycopeptides, of which the most important is vancomycin, were discovered. Vancomycin was expensive compared with penicillin--it was not used very much--and it was believed that it was impossible for organisms to become resistant to vancomycin. Now, VRSA--vancomycin-resistant staphylococcus aureus--has been discovered in the USA and Japan. Those countries can afford vancomycin and they use it widely and they have developed resistance to it.
This brings up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Winston, about the need in this day and age of very rapid travel for some kind of international action if we are to prevent the resistant strains in other countries
What can we do? We can be prudent in the use of antibiotics. One thing we can do is not use vancomycin except for MRSA infections. We were upset when we discovered that it is widely used by practitioners in the United States to treat otitis media, a middle ear infection which is not usually caused by bacteria but by a virus. It will not respond to antibiotics; therefore using it in that way is just asking for resistant strains to develop.
What else can be done? More could be done in relation to infection control, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Winston. We could follow the practice of Scandinavia and the Netherlands, where there are strict infection control policies, especially in hospitals. Those countries presently have no MRSA in their hospitals, whereas in this country the figure is 32 per cent. So the policy does work if it is strictly observed. It does not reverse the situation, but it slows down the development of more resistant organisms. It is no longer possible in many acute hospitals to isolate patients, which would be one way of preventing cross-infection. The infection control teams that should exist in all acute hospitals could keep a careful watch on standards of hygiene. Simple practices such as washing the hands after attending to each patient are often neglected. The cleaning of hospitals is now contracted out and is often not done carefully and well. There should be a limit on "bed-hopping"--patients moving from one bed to another in a hospital, sometimes for good medical reasons. This poses another risk of cross-infection. There ought also to be some training of staff.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Winston, that the matter is urgent. Not only do we face losing the advantages of antibiotics; we also face losing the practice of much modern surgery. Transplantation and joint replacement could not be carried out if there were not antibiotic cover. It would be too risky.
Lord Craig of Radley: My Lords, I wish to take this opportunity of congratulating the sub-committee on its excellent work. The opening of the Conclusions and Recommendations in Chapter 11 is eye-catching. It was intended to be so. It bears repeating:
Unlike many of the members of the sub-committee, I am, neither by training nor by strong inclination, readily able to assimilate and grasp totally many of the chemical and biological intricacies of this extremely complicated topic. But in spite of my lack of clinical and related expertise, I have little difficulty in grasping the import of many of the conclusions, particularly as they apply to hospitals.
Like many noble Lords, I have been, and no doubt may one day be again, a patient in hospital. I should declare an interest as the recently elected chairman of the council of Sister Agnes', the Edward VII Hospital.
In some detail the report draws attention to the special problems faced by hospitals and other care institutions. As the noble Lord, Lord Perry mentioned, infection control in hospitals is identified as particularly important in the fight against resistance to antibiotics. We find in this country as well as overseas numerous shortcomings in this field. The public learn of them from time to time from the media. I do not doubt that for every one story that reaches the national press, a dozen more do not. That is the nature of the media's approach.
But it is not reassuring to find so many witnesses who gave evidence of such problems. Is enough really being done to deal with the serious, indeed alarming, occurrence of MRSA, Methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus? The sub-committee's visit to the US disclosed that the proportion of MRSA among strains of Staph. aureus in large US teaching hospitals rose from 8 per cent. in 1986 to 40 per cent. in 1992, only six years later. And as MRSA increases, so does the use of vancomycin, the drug of last resort, bringing vancomycin resistance in its train.
The overall impression that this excellent report gives is that of a juggler trying to keep many balls in the air. Each ball represents a specialism or an element of research within this vastly complex topic. Almost weekly, if not daily, new issues arise, new balls are added to the juggler's array, and he has to work faster and faster to keep them all in the air. Who is the ringmaster? Who takes a look at what the juggler is
This far-sighted and thorough report was published last March. Now, some eight months later, we have a chance to debate it. But where is the Government's response to help us in our deliberations? It is not for me to chide or berate anyone, but I believe that the serious and considered work of Select Committees should be responded to in a reasonable time, and well before we have a chance to debate the topic. I had thought that it was accepted convention, if not a more rigorous requirement, for a government response to Select Committees to be made within 60 days. I, for one, would be prepared to set a slightly lengthier time-scale, provided the Government gave a thorough and considered response to the report.
I am, I expect, not alone in finding it extraordinary that, when faced with the Select Committee's report on medicinal usage of cannabis, which we published last week, the Government chose to issue within a matter of hours a strong rejection of the key recommendation of those who undertook the inquiry. Their press release came out well before they could even have had time to read, let alone consider interdepartmentally, the excellent findings that the report contained. However, that is for another day. Meanwhile, it would be helpful if the Government could confirm that it is their intention to respect the value and thoroughness of this Select Committee's work by responding in a thorough and constructive way to the inquiry and other reports within a reasonable time-scale.
Let me finish where I began. The Select Committee concluded that this inquiry was an alarming experience. The Government have yet to reply. Do they share the committee's sense of alarm, or should we take it that their lack of urgency in responding reflects a lack of concern about the whole topic? If it does, I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us with good reasons. I and many others need reassurance--for example, against the day that we may become in-patients in a major hospital.
Lord Jenkin of Roding: My Lords, other noble Lords began their speeches with personal anecdotes, and I should like to do the same. Some four years ago, when I was chairman of an NHS trust with a large district general hospital, the problems we faced with bed usage were being exacerbated by what our medical director called the problems of MRSA. I asked her what "MRSA" meant. She thought for a bit and said, "It is methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus". I asked her what was so remarkable about that. She proceeded to describe to me the problems of spreading infection: that it comes in on the skin of patients from the community; that it spreads easily in the hospital; and that it is extremely hard to treat. She said that it was becoming a serious problem. I said that we all knew that hospitals were dangerous places and that one did not go there unless one had to, but what she told me was extremely worrying.
I was comforted by the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Winston, said that he had found the learning experience on this Select Committee of enormous value to him. He is one of the country's greatest doctors in his field. As a layman, at that time when I was told about MRSA and thought that it was a serious problem, I did not know the half of it. Like everyone else, I have found this not only a fascinating study but also a very frightening one.
Under the admirable guidance of my noble friend Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior, we all learned a great deal, and some of it has been rehearsed in the debate this evening. This is an international problem, as the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, said, which affects the whole world. We face a major threat to public health. Those are serious words.
My noble friend Lord Soulsby referred to the report of the Standing Medical Advisory Committee, The Path of Least Resistance. That committee headed an early chapter of its study, "Looking into the Abyss". The speech of the noble Lord, Lord Perry of Walton, describing what happened in the pre-antibiotic age and what we are therefore likely to go back to, should have put the "frighteners" on everybody. We are facing a return to the pre-antibiotic era, with untreatable infections, incurable diseases and major epidemics.
In our discussion of how to get the impact of the report across to the public, I suggested that we might call it, "How can we stop the bugs winning?" I was told that that was a rather undignified title for your Lordships' House. However, I was delighted to see, when the committee issued the press release, that it was entitled, "Lords lead fight against killer bugs". That is the right kind of approach. Every speech that we have heard so far this evening has underlined the gravity of the threat that we face.
In the light of this, I am sure that noble Lords will share the concern of the committee that the Department of Health's evidence was in some respects complacent. In the light of what we heard from witnesses, we were worried by that complacency.
Reference has been made to the fact that it is now seven or eight months since we issued the report and we have yet to hear the Government's full response. I am sure that tonight we shall hear from the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, who has had a long experience of health matters, of various pieces of work in hand to address the problems. What we need is a clear overall strategy that recognises the gravity of the problem we face and sets out a programme of action on the many fronts that we have indicated in the report.
What I learned about the use of antibiotics in husbandry was completely new to me. One knew in a general way, but I knew nothing about growth promoters and all the other things we heard about. To my mind, our recommendation as to what should be done about that is one of the most serious and controversial recommendations. My noble friend Lord Soulsby, who is perhaps the country's leading expert in this field, guided us through that with great skill.
I wish to talk about three matters. The first is the prospect that antibiotics might become available over the counter, with no need for a doctor's prescription. Against the background of the threat which our report describes, the call for more prudent prescribing, and so on, it would be bizarre if, as a result of pressure from well-meaning people, consumerists, and so on, or, still worse, from European Union directives, we found ourselves dragooned into making antibiotics freely available as category "P" (pharmacy) as opposed to "POM" (prescription-only medicines).
But if the Royal College of General Practitioners takes the view that in certain circumstances it may be safe to allow antibiotics to be freely dispensed by pharmacists over the counter we face a very serious problem. The Government must stand firm on this matter. I hope that we shall receive a categorical assurance from the Minister that the Government will resist all blandishments and pressures to allow antibiotics to become OTCs. I detected more than a whiff of political correctness in some of the evidence we heard in favour of OTC, and that must be firmly resisted.
Secondly, I underline what the report says about the need for much more effective control of infection. Other speakers have touched upon this. I wish that I had had this report before me when I was the chairman of an NHS trust. I have no doubt that we could have done a lot more in our hospital to tighten things up. The evidence from the front line given to the sub-committee by the Infection Control Nurses' Association was disturbing. The evidence of nurses who had to deal with infection in both the hospital and the community and their description of the lax procedures that had become widely accepted in the system, their difficulty in getting sufficient staff and the problems of training people properly were alarming. Behind it all was the unspoken assumption that perhaps it did not matter very much because if somebody got an infection from another patient an antibiotic would cure it. As we have heard this evening, antibiotics will not cure it.
The simplest procedures that have been mentioned by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, such as washing hands between patients, sterilising mops and other cleaning equipment every day and making sure that all the normal rules of hygiene are strictly observed
We must ensure that standards of hygiene are properly enforced. It is a question of giving the people concerned with this the clout to make sure that it happens. In my trust I was privileged to sit through an argument between the clinical microbiologist and pathologists, on the one hand, and the surgeons, on the other, because the trust wished to create a control of infection ward. That meant depriving one of the surgical specialties of some of their beds. On that occasion, happily, a very eloquent clinical microbiologist won the day and carried his medical colleagues with him. It could have gone the other way; we might have had a recalcitrant consultant force if the board had had to enforce that decision, but in the end the doctors agreed. I observe in parenthesis that another spin-off was that the particular surgical specialty increased its day-case rate by 50 per cent. in two months--something that we had been pressing it to do. Therefore, we won at both ends.
Noble Lords need to know this evening--I hope that I shall have the attention of the Minister--whether the Government accept in full the important recommendations of the Select Committee on infection control. The simple truth is that it is much better to avoid infection in the first place than rely on defeating increasingly resistant bacteria with antibiotics.
My third point concerns the need to modify public expectations. Jane Doe expects a prescription for her child's ear-ache; John Doe demands a prescription for his sore throat; and Joan Doe does not know that her cold is caused by a virus and that an antibiotic is entirely useless. Those three patients will almost certainly recover in a day or two but all expect prescriptions for antibiotics. Few members of the public appear to be aware of the risk of building up resistance. I do not know whether other lay members of the sub-committee have had the experience of trying to explain to other laymen the matter with which the report is concerned. There is a belief that it is all to do with patients' resistance to antibiotics; it is not. We are concerned with the bugs. It is quite difficult to get that point across.
I have sympathy with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Winston, about the difficulty of GPs who face these demands. To anyone who wants to get a flavour of that I commend the evidence of the Osborne practice in Southsea which appears at page 440 of the evidence. That provides a graphic description of what it means for doctors who try to prescribe prudently and resist demands for inappropriate antibiotics.
The Standing Medical Advisory Committee in its report calls for NAP (national advice to the public) in addition to a campaign on antibiotic treatment. The committee uses the following words that I believe to be extremely wise and entirely in line with the report:
I shall end as I began, with another personal memory. I do not suppose that I was more than eight years old when, living in California where my father was working, I was given a marvellous picture book about germs. It showed little creatures in the form of cartoon characters rushing about. At that age I learnt what happened if germs got into a cut, how they were spread, for example by sneezing, and how if nasty germs got into food a person could become very ill. I have grown up with that pretty realistic understanding. They were called germs then because in America "bugs" was a rather improper word. I gained an understanding of some of the indications about bacteria. I remember to this day a cartoon picture of germs making their mischief in the human body. I was reminded of this when the other day I read a fascinating article in the British Medical Journal by an American author. Under the heading "Antimicrobial resistance: bacteria on the defence" the author considered the matter from the point of view of the bug. I end by quoting two passages from the article:
Lord Rea: My Lords, I, too, should like to say what a privilege I felt it was to be co-opted onto this sub-committee and particularly to be one of the lucky ones who formed the subgroup of the committee that went to the United States. I share the acknowledgement of all the help that we had from our two advisers and from our excellent Clerk. I should like to add my thanks
This inquiry is very timely. A number of other bodies from this country and throughout the world have recognised the importance of the subject. They have, or are, producing reports. The report which has been referred to already--namely, that of the Standing Medical Advisory Committee (SMAC) entitled The Path of Least Resistance, particularly in its synopsis form--is an excellent practical guide to the subject for all health workers and health administrators. I commend it.
Although I am not a micro-biologist, I thought originally that it might be useful to supplement the words of our excellent chairman and of the two other medical members of our team. But now I find that the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, has covered very graphically the biological process that goes on to create resistance. I shall try to summarise it. The chance of one new mutation being advantageous occurs much more frequently, as my noble friend Lord Winston said, with micro-organisms than they do with multi-cellular organisms. As the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, alluded, they sometimes have the added capacity to transfer genetic material through the cell walls by means of DNA-bearing particles called plasmids without the need for cell division. These can carry resistance genes from one species to another. (I hate to think what problems we would have if, as humans, we had developed that capacity). When micro-organisms encounter an antibiotic a few may already have the capacity to resist it. That was much more graphically described by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin. In addition, if they undergo a mutation they will multiply and become the dominant variety, which is a form of "evolution in miniature". That was how it was described by Dr. Bruce Levin who was mentioned by my noble friend Lord Winston. We met him in Atlanta at Emory University. He believes that it is a "one-way street" and that even if the use of antibiotics is sharply cut back the proportion of resistant strains wanes slowly, if at all. Even moderate use of the antibiotic concerned still imposes heavy selective pressure. If use is resumed after being cut off, resistance rises again much more rapidly than before.
Even in Iceland and Finland where strict control of prescribing succeeded in reducing the resistance of pneumococci and other micro-organisms to penicillin and erythromycin, they were not eliminated completely. (These, incidentally are the only two known examples of success in actually reducing the frequency of resistance).
All methods of slowing down the march of resistance to antibiotics have to work within this framework of adaptive evolution. As soon as a new antimicrobial agent is used, micro-organisms are under selective pressure to develop resistance to it and usually do. It is in fact the exception to the rule that the spirochaete that causes syphilis and the B haemolytic streptococcus that causes sore throat and scarlet fever are still sensitive to penicillin after more than 50 years of use. Most other organisms which were originally sceptical to penicillin
The word "prudence" has been uttered by several noble Lords already. Prudence seems to have come back into fashion in a number of fields. We are told that our Government run their economics in a prudent fashion. I do not like the term myself. It reminds me of aunt Prudence or, possibly, even prudishness. Nevertheless, it implies being sensible about the use of antibiotics and restricting their unnecessary use. That is the upshot of all that has been said on how resistance develops.
Noble Lords may not have pointed out that in Britain doctors prescribe antibiotics considerably more frugally than in most other countries, the Scandinavian countries excepted. As a result, we have lower levels of resistance on the whole although the MRSA figures are not good. But there is plenty of room for improvement in our prescribing habits. Our report describes a number of initiatives which are under way, particularly in general practice, and as a GP I shall speak mainly about the measures which apply to primary care. Both the Royal College of General Practitioners and the BMA, despite the words of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, are fully aware of the need to rationalise and reduce prescribing antibiotics to the minimum necessary. Some patients, mainly the most highly educated, are aware that antibiotics are not a panacea and that they have dangers as well as benefits. However, there is a minority of GPs who over-prescribe antibiotics or prescribe them inappropriately; for example, expensive, new antibiotics. Most infections can and should still be treated with the older, cheaper antibiotics. The new antibiotics should be reserved for use where resistance has developed to the older equivalents. It is inappropriate to prescribe as a first line what are often known as second line antibiotics. They are also expensive to the NHS and encourage resistance so they should be held in reserve as a second-line treatment.
The pharmaceutical industry is far from blameless, since it naturally wishes to develop a market for its new products. Its representatives and advertising material have a habit too often of extolling the new drug for first line use but do not mention the drawbacks of so doing. There are, however, as we describe in the report, some very active moves afoot to involve general practitioners in improving their prescribing. It is interesting that economical prescribing is nearly always clinically better prescribing. That does not apply only to antibiotics but across the board. I should be grateful if my noble friend could spell out in outline the way in which the Government are supporting and encouraging the various initiatives that are under-way to assist general practitioners to improve their prescribing, although I realise that if one were to give a full account of those it would be a speech in itself.
Many practices have developed independently their own formulary and prescribing policy; and pharmaceutical advisers are employed in primary care in many health authorities. I went on a very useful course organised by Camden and Islington FHSA, when it existed. But often those courses and initiatives are
We were rather disappointed that the Drug Utilisation Unit at Queen's University, Belfast, under the direction of Dr. Hugh McGavock has been closed under spending cuts decreed by the former government. I hope that my noble friend can reassure me that the promising COMPASS project started by that unit as well as its other work is being carried on. We have heard of other schemes, including the Grampian Formulary, the Scottish Intercollegiate Guideline Network (SIGN), and PRODIGY, the electronic guideline system for use in GPs' desk top computers--now becoming the norm. If my noble friend does not have time to give a progress report on all those projects, perhaps he will write to me or to the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby.
We heard about two promising schemes in the United States to improve the prescribing of doctors: one run by Dr. Jerry Avorn, of Harvard, which includes sending out pharmacists from the medical school to visit doctors in their offices. He found that for every dollar spent two dollars were saved on subsequent drug costs. Dr. Ben Schwartz of CDC Atlanta has produced a "non-prescription" form which doctors can give to patients, explaining why they are not getting a prescription.
My noble friend Lord Perry mentioned otitis media as one of the conditions in which penicillin is over prescribed. That has led in the United States to the development of penicillin resistant pneumococci. It has been shown that in some 90 per cent. of cases a virus is the cause. I was grateful to find that my own practice--which was to give a delayed action prescription to be made up in two days if there were no improvement--is the one recommended by the Royal College of GPs, and others, and is quoted in the report.
We were a little disappointed that more use is not being made of the very large bank of data that have been accumulated by the Prescription Pricing Authority and which are fed back to GPs in the form of PACT (prescription analysis and cost). That gives a complete breakdown of the prescriptions issued by every National Health Service GP. Although the prescriptions are not linked to individual patients, the pattern of prescribing could form a useful additional tool in the surveillance of community patterns of development of resistance. At Colindale we were told that this might well be usefully correlated with its surveillance plans. As well as having relevance to community infections, it might have relevance also to hospital infections.
Finally, I refer to the question of vaccines, which if successful can prevent some diseases which are developing resistance to antibiotics. A worrying one is meningitis due to meningococcus B bacillus. I was recently on an Inter-parliamentary Union delegation to Cuba and was impressed by the development there of a vaccine for meningococcus B, which is apparently the only one in the world that shows any kind of success. It has been used in Cuba and Brazil, apparently with success. Of course it needs more trials, but I suggest that, if it is not already happening, it should be followed up because it might well be of use in preventing the sort of tragedy about which my noble friend Lord Winston spoke in his opening remarks.
Lord Fitt: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Winston, has made a remarkable contribution in respect of the terrible scourge of MRSA and other agents which affect our population. I make no apology for repeating what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Craig of Radley. At paragraph 12.1 the report states:
My noble friend Lord Winston drew to the attention of the House--and it should be drawn to the attention of the country--the scourge brought about by resistance to antibiotics. When I saw the number of speakers on the list today, including those who were members of the committee, I was hesitant about taking part in the debate. However, I felt compelled to do so not because I have experience in the scientific field and of diseases but because of a personal reason for knowing what the debate is about.
Two years ago the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, introduced a debate on this killer bug in which I took part. I wonder how many people have since died from the effects of killer bugs in our hospitals. My personal experience and my justification for taking part in the debate is that two years ago my wife died from the results of MRSA.
I had been married for 48 years. My wife suffered from asthma but had learnt to live with it and took the various treatments available. One of them was cortisone. On a particular Wednesday I accompanied her to her doctor. He said, "Ann, you have been taking cortisone for a number of years. I think we could change your medication to one which would have fewer side effects than cortisone." My wife looked over at me to see whether she could go into the hospital for a few days from the Wednesday to the Saturday. I shall feel guilty to my dying day for agreeing and saying "Yes". I bitterly regret having done so. I took her in a taxi to the Chelsea & Westminster Hospital. After some time she was admitted to a ward. She still had asthma but was not in the throes of an attack. She was going into hospital to be given a different regime of tablets.
On the Wednesday evening my wife was walking up and down the ward and was on the telephone talking to all our daughters. On Thursday it was the same. However, when I went to see her on Friday, she said, "There's something happening at the other end of the ward. They are very concerned. They have got the screens around that lady and I have heard them say something about a bug--something called MRSA". I had never heard of MRSA and did not know what it meant. I put my hands to my head when she told me that. I said, "Ann, if there's a bug in this hospital you're going to get it."
The next morning when I went to the hospital I was given rubber gloves and a rubber apron to wear. My wife had got MRSA. She had gone into hospital for a change of tablets and within 48 hours she had contracted MRSA. She was placed in a side ward in which there were two beds. My wife was the first to go in; another lady with MRSA joined her the next day. Does anyone realise the psychological effects on a patient who has contracted MRSA in hospital? It was necessary to wear aprons and gloves. The hospital staff who bought food into the ward--after such a devastating shock my wife did not feel like eating--pushed it on to the table and left the ward as quickly as possible. People who contract MRSA in hospital feel almost like lepers. When members of the family visit they are given aprons and gloves to wear in the ward. That had a devastating effect on my wife and on other patients.
My wife was treated with vancomycin. It was of no benefit at all; in fact it had side-effects which were very cruel. Not every patient suffering from MRSA can take vancomycin. After a few days she became so ill she had to be taken to the intensive care unit. She was on a life support machine for 19 days. Those 19 days were the longest of my life, the longest I will ever have. After she had partially recovered, I spoke to some of the doctors and tried to get them to tell me personally what they might not be able to tell me professionally. All the indications were that MRSA had entered into her respiratory system and there was no way of curing it. I decided to take her home from the hospital because there was nothing more that could be done.
My noble friend Lord Winston and other noble Lords speak with medical experience. I am very impressed. I wish only that the public could read Chapter 4 of the report which relates to what should be done to try to combat this awful scourge. The noble Lord, Lord Perry, says that it will probably be 10 years before we can perfect another drug which might begin to contain the ravages of MRSA. What do we do in the meantime? I believe that we should concentrate all our attacks on trying to bring about infection control in hospitals. That is only thing we can do.
Again, I have a friend in Belfast at present, a man in his seventies, who went into hospital for a minor complaint two weeks ago. He contracted MRSA. He was released from the hospital. I saw him one day last week when his great granddaughter of a few months old was brought to see him. It broke his heart because he could not give that little great granddaughter a cuddle. All his friends and relatives must stand at the door because they are told, "Do not go near him". The disease has a devastating effect on the people who contract it.
I have spoken to many nurses who are all of one opinion. Everyone knows that there is a shortage of nurses and that they are grossly underpaid. How are we to contain that dreadful MRSA, particularly in view of the fact that there is no known cure for it? We are unlikely to find a cure for 10 years. Therefore, I suggest that we must step up our attacks on infection control in our hospitals. That is the only way. I do not believe that a lack of finance should be a reason for preventing that.
I know that some hospitals will not be particularly happy when I say that my wife died from the effects of MRSA. However, that was not written on her death certificate. It is not put down as the main reason or a contributory factor which led to death. That is because if a patient goes into hospital with a minor complaint, contracts MRSA and then dies the relatives would be in a position to take up a claim against the hospital, the hospital having given the patient the disease from which the patient subsequently died. If MRSA is contracted because of the negligence or otherwise or because of non-infection control in hospitals, that should be on the death certificate if that is the reason for the death.
I believe that the members of the committee have performed a signal service not only to your Lordships' House but also to the country. I appeal to all those agencies, the media or otherwise, perhaps not to report this debate but to look at the report, as it has been printed, and the experience of the committee.
I conclude by saying that MRSA has had a devastating effect on my life. I was married for 48 years. My wife could still be with me had she not gone into hospital in order to change her tablets for asthma. I hope that that does not happen to anyone else. I urge that all necessary steps and all financial considerations are taken into account to make sure that infection control is available in all hospitals so that we can try to eradicate this terrible scourge.
Our alarm was occasioned by the extremely frightening consequences which have been described so movingly by the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, which face the whole of humanity as those clever bacteria develop resistance quickly and skilfully to antibiotics, our principal weapon in preserving public health over 50 years.
I remember, as a child, the quietness of the road where I lived when we all knew that a man was going through the crisis of pneumonia. In those days there was no antibiotic cure. It would be a global catastrophe to go back to those days. Our box 2 on page 13 illustrates the serious diseases like malaria, meningitis, and pneumonia which demand the use of effective antibiotics for their cure and to which we shall all be at serious risk if resistance continues to grow and accelerate.
The use of antimicrobials in medicine is well controlled in the UK, which is a comforting thought. However, with so much global human travel, resistant bugs can travel too. We cite an example of the explosive spread of penicillin-resistant pneumococci in Iceland in the early 1990s when rates rose from one per cent. in 1988 to 20-25 per cent. in 1993. The genetics of the strain showed that it almost certainly came from Spain, where it was common.
As in so many other fields, isolationism is no good. We must play a strong part, both in the European Union and the World Health Organisation, in encouraging the prudent use of antibiotics and also sharing with those organisations our own experience of successful practice.
I do not intend to cover the question of the use of antibiotics in animal health. Other noble Lords, particularly our chairman, are far better qualified to do so than I am. Instead, I wish to concentrate on policies which affect humans directly while accepting that imprudent treatment on animals can have a serious effect on human beings.
As is so often the case, the need for better education is crucial to success. In the first instance, we suggest that undergraduate curricula should contain better advice to young future doctors on infectious diseases and antimicrobial therapy; and that that should continue just as strongly in postgraduate education and vocational training and in the continuing professional development of doctors in their prescribing policies.
We were much struck, as other noble Lords have stated this afternoon, by the dilemma of busy, inner-city doctors with short appointment time allocations when confronted by the worried mother with the crying child with a sore throat or earache demanding antibiotic treatment. We appreciated in those circumstances how much more difficult and time consuming it is to say "no". Good communication talents are clearly part of
That means that the public as a whole need to be aware of the subject. It is most often mothers who take children to surgeries, and often their scientific education in school has been insufficient. One cannot blame them, therefore, if they try to achieve what they believe to be the most effective cure for their child while not being fully informed as to its harmful side effects. I hope that womens' magazines will take up our suggestion of user-friendly articles by experts capable of writing about the subject in an interesting, clear and persuasive way so that it is more easily understood and appreciated by worried mothers. That would be tremendously worthwhile over a period of years.
The Public Health Laboratory Service was most generous of its time to us and in explaining its vital work. Its funding must not be reduced at a time when it is important to invest in information technology to speed up the exchange of data locally, nationally and internationally and the return of information quickly to enable quicker and more accurate prescription by GPs. That investment in IT equipment must also be compatible with existing systems both among GPs and hospitals.
Money is short in all the public services. There will never be enough, especially as the medical profession discovers new and better ways of combating injury and disease. We are all grateful that today we do not have to stay in hospital for weeks after surgery and that day surgery has become common. However, a side effect is so called "hot bedding", which can mean inadequate cleaning between serial occupation of beds by patients. Infection-control nursing is a vital necessity in all hospitals and under-staffing was reported to us. Also, the use of cheap soap may lead to cracked hands and less handwashing, which is crucial to ward hygiene--a very simple but vital need. Infection-control nurses also need good IT provision and clerical staff. They must be listened to carefully in laying down infection control policies for hospitals. That must also include training of cleaners, both in-house or by contract.
Clearly all those things cost money. But the costs must be set against the enormous cost of an outbreak of MRSA. The Cooke Report calculates that the Kettering outbreak cost over £400,000, which of course cannot include the cost in human suffering, so vividly described earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Fitt. An outbreak, of course, also leads to bad publicity and loss of morale among the staff, as well as to the possibility of subsequent time-consuming and expensive litigation.
Lord McNair: My Lords, I venture into these troubled waters as a non-medic and non-scientist who has a passionate interest in safer and more effective alternatives to modern drugs. I am not therefore in the least surprised that we are in the situation so graphically described in the report that we are discussing today. I should add that many products of the pharmaceutical companies have saved countless lives and will certainly continue to do so in the future.
During the debate on the Unstarred Question of the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, of 4th November 1996 (cols. 576 to 578) I spoke about the role that I know the oxygen therapies could play in solving this and related problems. On that occasion I described some of the technical aspects of oxygen therapies and will not repeat myself more than necessary on this occasion.
I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, for not mentioning to him that I would speak on this subject in this debate. In fact, I only decided to put my name down on Friday evening but would love to talk with him about it at some time in the future.
I will just say in summary that hydrogen peroxide is what the white blood cells produce to destroy viruses and bacteria. A body that is oxygenated is likely to be healthier than one that is not. In an earlier phase of the planet's evolution there was less oxygen in the atmosphere and that is when viruses and bacteria evolved.
Although it is licensed for 17 external applications, its increasing use orally and intravenously is outside the present stipulations of the Medicines Control Agency. I should add also that ozone gas is by far the best method of sterilising an enclosed space, such as a room, and also of sterilising stored water.
Section 11.2 of this excellent report makes clear that we were in a no-win situation. The hope is expressed that we may delay the rate at which bacteria become resistant to new drugs, but even that hope is dashed. It says:
I think it is likely that the picture will get worse. There are difficulties in the research and development of new drugs which I will discuss a little later in my remarks. The situation could be characterised as a war between anti-bug drugs and the anti-drug bugs. I believe
In this debate this impending tragedy has been discussed with no reference to the companies that create and produce the antibiotics, as though they just simply appear. It is almost as though the companies themselves were passive victims in the matter. It makes no sense to discuss this problem without looking also at the way the pharmaceutical companies conduct their activities in relation to the complementary medicine sector, the National Health Service and the Government. The subject matter of this report is not just a technical question of more knowledge, more research and more money; it reflects commercial policy choices made by the pharmaceutical companies in this and other aspects of their operations. They are running into considerable difficulties in their research and development programmes. As reported in last Thursday's edition of The Times, Dr. Arlington, who is head of pharmaceutical R&D consulting at Price Waterhouse Cooper, said:
The drug companies have been in the news quite a bit recently. The News of the World has stepped up its campaign to expose the sudden and dramatic price rises in advance of changes in legislation or regulations, which will mean a higher proportion of the NHS budget will go to drugs and less to operations and other vital services. This was clearly an exercise in protecting "total shareholder returns". The drug companies also featured in a powerful report in the Express, on the same day as The Times article, which ties in with information in a forthcoming book by Dr. Matthias Rath. Dr. Rath is a medical doctor and scientist who is the successor to Linus Pauling and was publicly endorsed by Dr. Pauling before the Nobel Prize winner's death. In fact, it was Linus Pauling's contention that vitamin C could have an antibiotic effect.
The report in the Express details the manoeuvres which the drug companies are engaging in to ensure that alternative solutions to health problems, such as vitamins and minerals, are reclassified as medicines, and also describes the efforts by parliamentarians to defeat them. The recent debate and victory against the drug companies by MPs and the people over Vitamin B6 was one round in this battle. Similar manoeuvres are used to keep the knowledge about oxygen therapies from practitioners and the public.
It is clear that the pharmaceutical companies have a very narrow understanding of social responsibility and their solely profit-driven philosophy has led us into the impasse that we are discussing today. The following
I am throwing down a gauntlet to the Minister. I would like him to prove me--and the impeccably eminent medical opinion which understands the science and healthcare implications of this--right or wrong about hydrogen peroxide and in fact about the oxygen therapies in general. But I realise that he will not be able to pick up that gauntlet this evening. The only sure way out of this swamp is to adopt the suggestion I am making today. The drug companies have got themselves, Her Majesty's Government and us into this mess. I am offering HMG and the people of this country a way out.
One statement by a departmental official at our second meeting astounded me. She asked me at the end of the meeting, referring to hydrogen peroxide, "How come it is so good if there is no commercial benefit in it?" This official was clearly so steeped in the commercial philosophy of the pharmacologists who are entrenched as advisers to the department as to be unable to conceive of a substance that had, on the one hand, enormous potential benefit but, on the other, would never make any company the fortunes to be made from patentable drugs. The production of hydrogen peroxide is, after all, O-level chemistry.
The gauntlet I am throwing down for the Minister today is to risk no more than a quarter of a million pounds of his department's budget on a "free and fair", double blind clinical trial on any one of a number of groups of patients using conventional antibiotics for the control group and hydrogen peroxide for the experimental group. The trial would, of course, need a level playing field and that would mean joint monitoring by departmental doctors or officials and by doctors experienced with using hydrogen peroxide and ozone.
Then, and only then, is there some hope that we can overcome this seemingly intractable problem. I want to emphasise that hydrogen peroxide is not just another alternative health remedy but a fundamental
In fact, my reading suggests that the anti-cancer drug, Interferon, penicillin--which has been much discussed this evening--and Vitamin C all work by increasing the body's own production of hydrogen peroxide. It is such a fundamental feature of how our bodies work that once the knowledge is widespread it offers great possibilities for lay people to take responsibility for their own healthcare.
If there is anything I can do to help Her Majesty's Government with progressing this I should be happy to do so. There is a considerable amount of information about hydrogen peroxide on the Internet which officials can peruse at their leisure, not of course that they would have leisure working at the department! It goes without saying that the cost savings would be enormous, almost astronomical in fact, and these savings would, of course, open the way to spending more on other parts of the health service. The department would do more to help improve the nation's health by adopting my suggestion and promoting the health benefits of the oxygen therapies than by any other single action.
The discoveries about the healing power of oxygen were made in the second half of the 19th century but were never going to make any fortunes because the technology is so simple. The knowledge of the importance of hydrogen peroxide to internal medicine would have been relegated to a footnote of medical history had a dedicated band of enthusiasts not handed on the information to successive generations. The suggestion that one would have heard of it if it were valid is easily countered if one understands that this is a world based on public relations. The messages we hear and read are, by and large, the messages that someone has paid for. It is simply not worth anyone's while to pay to promote hydrogen peroxide.
So how should I communicate these ideas? I had a conversation with the noble Lord, Lord Winston, who I see has returned to his place. He made a helpful suggestion that I should contact the Wellcome Foundation. I did not in fact follow that up because I did not have much confidence in the separation between the Wellcome Foundation and Glaxo Wellcome.
My experience with the Department of Health has not been particularly productive. The noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, passed on to officials the small selection of papers I gave her. These were but a sample of the thousands of peer reviewed papers on oxygen therapies which have appeared in the medical press and other literature over the past 150 years, but they fell into the bottomless well for good ideas which must exist in all government departments.
If we are to continue the upward march of medical knowledge hand in hand with improvements in health we must reorientate ourselves in our view of what human and, indeed, animal health really is. I am attracted by the concept which I encountered recently of functional health. This approach to looking after our bodies mirrors best practice in driving and maintaining a car. It signals a new direction in our thinking.
Current thinking about exercise, food supplements and nutritional balance, in addition to the very basic science that underlies the use of oxygen to restore health, coupled with application of that knowledge in practice, combine to produce a state of health known as functional health. Regular servicing of the body will keep it in good condition. In fact, these new understandings should lead us to the point where we die when the body clock stops--and not of disease.
We will achieve, for the people of this country, this state of positive or functional health only if we are prepared to enlighten them about the simple facts of functional health, and, of course, about environmental threats to health which include toxins as well as antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria.
Of course, we will not eliminate disability and disease. There will always be something for doctors and medical specialists to do, and there will always be a role for the pharmaceutical companies, albeit a reduced role. But, if we are prepared to base our medical technology and our philosophy of healthcare on the foundations I have outlined, and if we are prepared to arm people with the simple and basic knowledge of what functional health is so that they can take responsibility for ensuring they achieve it for themselves and their children, I can foresee a bright new dawn for the health of the nation in the 21st century.
Baroness McFarlane of Llandaff: My Lords, I too found it a great privilege to serve as a co-opted member of the sub-committee, the report of which is now before the House. The publication of our report received considerable publicity. I believe that it has already promoted a widescale discussion by both the public and professionals. Perhaps this debate is timely in that it serves to maintain the high profile of the subject with the general public. I believe that the well presented report of the Standing Medical Advisory Committee, The Path of Least Resistance, complements and underlines our report.
Before serving on the committee, I had been made aware of the problems of resistance in the administration of antibiotics to humans. I suppose that my further education started two years ago in the debate to which reference has been made, which was instigated by the noble Baroness, Lady Masham. I had been retired for 10 years then, so I referred to a former student of mine, an expert clinical nurse specialist. She turned the tables on me and supplied me with a reading list. She was even kinder than that and supplied me with photocopies on the subject which were several inches deep.
Although I have great concerns about medical practice and the prescription of antibiotics, I think that it would be more fitting, in view of my professional experience in nursing, if I concentrated my remarks on the role of nurses in the health education of the public and in infection control, both in hospitals and in the community. I am, however, acutely aware that we all have to operate very much as a team, with the general public, patients and health professionals, including doctors and nurses, each having a vital role to play. In that team the infection control nurse, as well as the microbiologist, plays a pivotal role. As a result of Project 2000 and the revised system of nursing education, registered nurses are now very much better prepared in the principles of microbiology and their applications in their work.
Infection control nurses are a highly qualified group of nurse specialists: registered nurses who have taken a post-basic certificate or a diploma course in infection control. They have had a minimum of four years of post-registration experience and most have had some years of experience at ward sister or charge nurse level. So they are nurses with sound experience of clinical management in the nursing service. A significant number are now taking either first level or higher degree level subjects relevant to infection control. They have an understanding of the microbiology and public health issues that are entailed in their work and of the principles involved in health education.
My experience of working with infection control nurses in the past and of watching their professional expertise has given me a high respect for them and an appreciation of their value within the health service. I have seen them at work in hospitals where an outbreak of infection has posed a great threat. I am left with great respect for the contribution they make.
I believe that they are pre-eminently clinical nurse specialists of the calibre that the Secretary of State for Health has marked out as being deserving of recognition and reward. We as a sub-committee were certainly impressed by the calibre of written evidence presented by the Infection Control Nurses Association and the authoritative way in which witnesses presented their oral evidence and answered our questions.
Infection control nurses, by virtue of their knowledge and expertise, are well placed to contribute to the education of the public and professionals in respect of the appropriate use of antibiotics. The Infection Control Nurses Association has developed a number of educational packages for use with the education of healthcare staff--for example, residential and nursing home staff--and the development of national standards for the ambulance service.
Infection control nurses contribute by working collaboratively with other agencies, including the Public Health Laboratory Service. One of their basic functions is monitoring clinical activity, which is an integral part of the role of the infection control nurse. They also have a function in the investigation of outbreaks of infection.
I want to dwell on some of the aspects of infection control to which infection control nurses make such a contribution--and to which noble Lords have already referred. In our report we say that in some respects hospitals achieve the level of infection control for which they are willing or able to pay. This shows that we need a will to devote resources and that resources need to be made available. It must be wearying for a government to hear about resourcing, resourcing, resourcing different services, but it is part of our role to draw attention to needs and to see that priorities are established against other demands in the health service.
I want to give just a few examples of where I feel we are making false economies. First, staffing levels in infection control have a direct bearing on the incidence of hospital-acquired infection. We were told by the Association of Medical Microbiologists that each infection control nurse in the UK covers 400 acute beds. The Infection Control Nurses Association put the number nearer to one nurse to 700 beds and said that a recent survey by the Public Health Laboratory Service identified a range of from 125 to 1,600 beds per infection control nurse. I ask noble Lords to visualise the function of one lonely infection control nurse trying to service 1,600 beds with all her skills. That study gave a medium of 460 beds per infection control nurse based on 19 district general hospitals.
Research in the United States has shown that hospital-acquired infection can be reduced by 30 per cent. if there is a ratio of one infection control nurse to 250 patients. Therefore, there is a strong recommendation that the staffing levels in infection control need to be increased if staff are to give an adequate service both in hospitals and in the community.
A corollary to the shortage of staff is the employment of so many agency staff who may be poorly versed in the infection control techniques of a particular hospital. Because of the great mobility of agency staff, they can carry infection from one area to another. But given adequate staffing ratios--if we were ever given adequate staffing ratios--there is a need to equip nurses to work effectively. We have already had reference to the lack of adequate provision of information technology and secretarial assistance for those nurses. The report states that the majority of infection control teams do not have formal contracting arrangements with their purchasers and that therefore there is a clear tendency for their needs to be neglected.
In their evidence the infection control nurses were particularly concerned about the bearing of hygiene practices on infection control. We have already had a number of references to that point. Ward cleaning is no longer under the control of the ward sister, so that the cleanliness of wards and other hospital departments is not as adequate as before. Obviously, trusts tend to award contracts to the cheapest tenderers. That means
We have already heard about the isolation facilities being taken away. There are no longer facilities for placing patients in isolation wards. We have heard that one of the most important aspects of infection control is hand washing. This needs teaching but also monitoring. It seems, regrettably, that doctors are conforming less to standards in this area than other health staff. We were distressed to hear that, in the interests of economy, inferior quality soaps are bought by some trusts, which can result in the excoriation of nurses' hands.
If there are problems in infection control in hospitals, the situation is, if anything, worse in healthcare facilities in the community. The proportion of infection control nurses is smaller; some community trusts do not have an infection control nurse and rely on the services of a hospital infection control nurse. The standards of education in some nursing homes and residential homes is very poor. Staff may be unaware of how to deal with MRSA and other infections. At one point some residential and nursing homes were refusing to take patients from hospitals with MRSA. I understand that the department has now issued advice, which is being followed, so there are fewer refusals.
There is one other aspect of the report of the Infection Control Nurses Association which I found meaningful. I was reminded of it by the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Fitt. I refer to the psychological trauma that it causes to patients and their relatives if they are diagnosed as having MRSA. We heard from some nurses who had been infected with MRSA and of the psychological trauma that that caused to them. They felt unclean and unable to sleep with their husbands; they isolated themselves from their family. I think that we can put ourselves in the position of nurses who have been so affected.
Tucked away among the interesting facts that we learnt in the evidence that we received was a statistic that has so far not been mentioned--that apparently we carry on and in us more bacteria than we have mammalian cells. That point inevitably stuck in my memory when it was thrust before us. Possibly there is a little bacterium in there that made sure I remembered.
It is a fact of life that bacteria are with us all the time--and not merely beneficial bacteria. We must live in some sort of symbiotic relationship. But we also carry with us most of the infective bacteria. We therefore have to assume that hygiene begins at home. Therefore what
I wish to touch on two matters: the first is information systems and the second is agriculture. It was surprising that, among all the information and the reams of evidence that we received, there was a great gap in factual information in terms of what was being prescribed, why it was being prescribed and what the outcome was. In general practice, where GPs have to a great extent adopted computers, this information is now instantly available, but there is no mechanism for collating it so that it can be used on a wider basis to find out what is happening and why resistance is a problem in the community, as we know it is.
More alarming than that is the fact that these systems are almost unheard of in hospitals. Hospitals prescribe antibiotics; they are recorded into their pharmacies and--to borrow and abuse a phrase that was used in the Falklands conflict--they are recorded out of the pharmacies; and that is where the information stops. Unless we know what antibiotic is used and why at the patient level, how can we hope to understand what is happening in the inevitable development of resistance? There will never be a situation in which we are bacteria-free or infection-free. These organisms are almost infinitely adaptable. As we put them under pressure as a result of one form of treatment, they will adapt and become immune; and so we develop another form of treatment.
This is a never-ending battle. But it would help enormously in treating this variable beast with which we are dealing if we knew what was being used and why and if that information could be collated. Infection patterns vary from place to place and treatment patterns vary from place to place. It is important to know what the local variations are so that one can know immediately what the possible variations in treatment are and not have to find out the hard way by experimentation, by giving a patient an antibiotic and four days later, when it has not worked, trying something else, with one's fingers crossed, which is not a satisfactory way of proceeding.
The information should all be pulled into the Public Health Laboratory Service and antibiotic-resistant bacteria treated as a notifiable matter so that we know exactly what has happened. PHLS could then transfer the information back to users in a readily understandable way and treatment could be more immediate.
The second aspect with which I deal is the use of antibiotics in agriculture, particularly prophylactic treatment in animal foods. This is a very emotive subject. If we accept, as we do, that generally in humans prophylactic medicines are not used, veterinary practice
The two main uses of antibiotics are in pigs and poultry. The vast bulk of poultry meat that goes on to the shelves of supermarkets comes from chickens that are slaughtered at six weeks. It is very unusual for a chicken to go beyond 10 weeks. Even the versatility of bacteria has not overcome that particularly harsh fact. Pigs live a little longer, but not much. Mature animals do get on to the market, but the bulk of the food in the shops is grossly immature. These treatments have taken place and on the whole have not yet produced resistance, but they will. The difficulty is not so much what happens in the animal but it is most unlikely that the manufacturing process to which the carcass is subjected will remove all of the bacteria. That is the harsh reality.
Another aspect is that once a generation of stock leaves the farm the buildings can be thoroughly disinfected and the process started all over again. That is a harsh reality. That cannot happen in mankind. Hospitals are far too busy and pressured to close down wards, thoroughly disinfect absolutely everything, leave them empty for a week and then start all over again. That cannot become the general practice. The use of antibiotics in animals is very different from the use in man. Where one is dealing with growth promoters and the treatment of disease--no one has suggested for a whole host of very good reasons that antibiotics should not be used to treat diseases--one is dealing with wholly different circumstances. One is dealing usually with animals that have reached a level of maturity. There is a much greater chance in a dairy herd of a build-up of bacterial resistance because one has continual use over a long period in circumstances where disinfection is impossible.
This is an unending battle. We must hope that researchers come up with some further answers. But as they find answers to one problem so they create the next one. There is an unending task ahead. The report is a very good one and deserves the most serious attention. Dare I say (to echo the words of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley) that it deserves rather more immediate attention than it appears to have received. However, very many beneficial events have occurred since the publication of the report. I join the chairman in commending it to the House.
Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, the months that the committee spent looking into the resistance to antibiotics was without doubt a most interesting time in your Lordships' House. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior, for his good humoured chairmanship of the committee. I also thank our two medical advisers and the Clerk, Andrew Makower, for their hard work and for the help given to me personally when we visited places outside your Lordships' House.
I hope that the report will help to educate many people to a worldwide problem which needs global co-operation. The report asks the all-important question: can resistance be controlled? Professor Percival, professor of clinical bacteriology at Liverpool University, put it starkly. He said,
We have heard many times that hygiene and proper isolation facilities in hospitals are of the utmost importance to avoid the spread of resistant strains of bacteria. I also read that many years ago in notes on nursing by Florence Nightingale. We heard many times during the evidence how important is the basic washing of hands for doctors and nurses before they touch a different patient. We heard at King's College Hospital that a doctor's tie touching different patients could spread infection. Perhaps they should wear bow ties if they need to wear ties at all. Stethoscopes and clothes can also spread infection from patient to patient.
We discussed the speeding up of testing for infections. Because testing takes so long sometimes patients are put on inappropriate antibiotics. Are the guidelines clear enough for junior doctors? It was felt that the process could be speeded up if results were reported electronically. The Royal College of General Practitioners told us that systems exist already. In the rural area where I live the system seems very slow and cumbersome. Perhaps the Minister can give a progress report.
As a paraplegic, I have had my life saved on several occasions by antibiotics. As president of the Spinal Injuries Association, I know the serious dangers to our members if new antibiotics do not materialise. The danger of the spread of methicillin-resistant staphylococci (MRSA) is a serious menace in spinal units where many patients have pressure sores when they are transferred from a general hospital where the nursing care is often inadequate for paralysed patients. Those using catheters or tracheostomies are also at risk. That demonstrates how patients, when they become paralysed, should go straight to the spinal unit.
The shortage of nurses, the large number of agency nurses and the pressure on beds make the controlling of MRSA more difficult, as does the shortage of side wards. MRSA has put many extra pressures and costs on hospitals, and patients have been made more ill. Recently I sat next to a couple at dinner while staying
We found what the Department of Health had to say on the subject complacent. It is said that levels of MRSA in this country are low by international standards, but they are rising. They have risen, my Lords. The more MRSA circulates, the more Vancomycin must be used to treat it, bringing closer the prospects of VRSA which, in the words of the PHLS, would be "catastrophic".
We recommend that the NHS should set itself targets controlling MRSA in hospitals and publish its achievement. Dr. Edmonds, from King's College Hospital, showed horrific pictures of the effect of MRSA on leg ulcers in diabetic patients. I wonder whether the reporting systems are adequate. I should like to ask the Minister whether he thinks that MRSA should become a notifiable condition.
I have heard that MRSA does not like tea tree oil. I wonder how much research is being undertaken to combat resistance using alternatives to antibiotics. We agree that misuse and overuse of antibiotics are now threatening to undo all their early promises and success in curing disease. However, I agree with Tessa Jowell, the Minister for Public Health, when she says that parents should not be warned off antibiotics when their children may have meningitis. There have been too many tragedies of babies and young people dying from meningitis.
Our report states that the US has paid a heavy price in money and lives for letting down its guard against tuberculosis. The UK must not make the same mistake. As a member of the all-party HIV and AIDS Group, I was very concerned about the outbreak of MDR-TB among AIDS patients in some London hospitals. The serious problems in the US, which cost the city of New York 175 million dollars over four years, is a warning. The report stresses that TB services involve measures to ensure compliance along with port health controls, surveillance and facilities for isolation. We welcome the guidelines from the Department of Health that there will be more stringent infection control and more rapid diagnostic tests in cases of suspected MDR-TB.
Direct observed therapy (DOT) both in the hospital situation and within the community has improved cure rates and reduction in the rate of tuberculosis, drug resistance and relapses in a number of countries. Perhaps I may ask the Minister whether there are plans for such programmes here which depend on the skills of staff and resources. It was found to be a way forward in New York.
We were concerned, along with the Consumers in Europe Group, about the transfer of antibiotic resistance bacteria from animals to humans. Humans can acquire resistant bacteria from animals directly via food or through contact with the animal or animal foodstuffs or from living near the farm animals.
Multiple resistance to antibiotics has been increasing for the most common salmonella infections in humans. Some years ago, there was an outbreak of salmonella typhimurium in your Lordships' House and both the noble Lord, Lord Carter, and myself had specimens sent for testing. The results came back the same. Therefore, the public health people were brought in and the infection was traced to raw eggs in mayonnaise. I believe that there are many cases of salmonella, campylobacter, enterococci and E.coli which go undetected because nobody bothers to find out and trace the outbreaks.
I hope that the Government will not shelve the food safety issue. How much research is being done on possible direct animal contact in food sources of E.coli 0157? Public health is of immense importance.
When taking evidence for the report, it became clear that the microbiologists and many people working in infection control needed their status raised. I hope that the whole field of infectious diseases and resistance to antibiotics will be put at the top of the health agenda. Education and public awareness are of vital importance both for professionals and the public but that is not enough. The resources must be there also. They have to be increased. As an example, when we visited King's College Hospital, Denmark Hill, there were infection control systems within the hospital but there is no infection control team in the community. We felt that to be a serious failing. The area around King's has the highest rate of gonorrhoea in the country. Education should go out into the communities within the community, which consists of many races and languages.
We have heard recently of the first new class of antibiotics for about 15 years called linezolid and the class of antibiotics is the oxazolidinones. The drug is active against multiple resistant Gram positive bacteria such as methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), vancomycin-resistant enterococci (VRE) and penicillin-resistant streptococcus pneumoniae. That must be good news but how can linezolid be protected from also becoming resistant? Are the Government going to ensure that its use is carefully controlled? Is that a possibility?
Our visit to the US seemed to be well received. We met many enthusiastic and immensely interesting people. Looking at the list of research projects, it was good to see so many projects still trying to tackle the HIV/AIDS problem. The different laws concerning different states made for a complex network.
One of the last people we met in Boston was Dr. Levy, a dedicated and enthusiastic campaigner. He expressed delight that the issue was receiving attention at Westminster. As our report says, he declared himself an optimist. We must not let the position get worse here. I hope that the Government's response tonight will be positive and hopeful and that we can look forward to better protection and higher morale in our infection control workforce.
The Earl of Clanwilliam: My Lords, I rise to speak briefly in the gap in order to draw your Lordships' attention to the evidence submitted to the committee by two bodies. The first is the Research Council for Complementary Medicine, on page 447; the second is the Soil Association, on page 499. That is a double whammy for my pet project, which I find hard to resist.
The RCCM demonstrated that herbal medicine has been shown positively to improve the immune system, while previous centuries have proved that there are no side effects, let alone induced resistance, to the effects of such treatments. Indeed, the findings of the committee and the speeches of all noble Lords reflect this as the reason for the public's interest in complementary medicine, as was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord McNair.
I also draw your Lordships' attention to the evidence of the Soil Association on page 499 and at paragraph 3.8 of the recommendations. Organic farming reduces the use of chemicals of all descriptions and contributes to more healthy animals and more healthy food. The Soil Association has been operating for 50 years. Farmers who belong to that body do not and have not used growth promoters.
Neither complementary medicine nor organic farming provide complete answers to the problems of achieving good health or healthy food, but both are important contributors to those considerations. I submit to your Lordships that they deserve a place in this debate.
Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, in winding up on behalf of these Benches, I pay tribute to your Lordships' committee. The report is extremely well written. As a layman, I found it most intelligible and readable. Tonight's speeches have clarified a number of issues arising out of the report.
I apologise to the House for being unable to hear all the speeches tonight. That was due to an unbreakable commitment. However, the speeches I have heard, particularly that of the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior, were excellent in carrying the debate further.
The report has led to major coverage in the newspapers. It has led to coverage in specialist medical journals, scientific journals and even television programmes. But the real acid test is whether it will prompt government action. We are looking forward to hearing from the Minister tonight.
The report highlights with frightening starkness the problems of microbiological resistance. I am afraid to say that it also highlights a certain complacency in the NHS, which may well be changing as a result of the report. Certainly, it was an aspect which came through to me quite strongly. As we have heard from many noble Lords tonight, as regards hospital infections, MRSA is a major problem when we have only vancomycin to protect us and when resistant strains have been discovered, notably in Japan. But it is also a problem in the area of disease where, both here and internationally, we are facing the real prospect of resistant strains of TB, meningitis, typhoid and pneumonia. All the diseases that killed our parents and our grandparents are potentially coming back to haunt us.
In the committee's conclusions and in its treatment of the evidence I found it particularly interesting that it was not absolutely convinced by the medical evidence that changing prescribing behaviour would necessarily alter whether or not specific bacteria became resistant. In my view it formed a perfectly valid working hypothesis that that is the case, working on the balance of probabilities. That seems to me to be a way forward that could commend itself to us.
The kind of problems identified by the committee on the primary care front struck a chord in my case. Doctors talked of parental expectations and the pressures from parents. The noble Lord, Lord Winston, was particularly moving in describing that kind of pressure. As the parent of an eight-month old child I recognise that one is not prepared to take the risk. When I come to discuss public education, I want to highlight that specific feature.
That kind of perfectly valid unwillingness to take any risk will have a knock-on effect. We have a major government childcare strategy and an expansion of childcare facilities. What effect will that have on GP prescribing behaviour? Likewise, people are living longer and there are more older people, often in homes. What effect will that have on prescribing behaviour? Will it lead to continued over-prescribing?
The report also highlights the whole area of hospital infection and emphasises that infection control is extremely important. But what impact will the increasing use of agency nurses have on infection control? By and large they will be unfamiliar with the infection control protocols and procedures of their hospitals, and inevitably that causes risk. Likewise, the use of contract cleaning services--a number of noble Lords referred to this--not directly under the control of the ward manager may lead to a lowering of standards.
So is infection control one of the casualties of the internal market? When an infection strikes the hospital, the cost is clearly massive. Short-term cost savings can therefore lead to huge costs in the long run. It is also extremely worrying, as the report indicated, that there are so many chairs of microbiology which are reported as being vacant. Even though the report came out in April, many of those London chairs are still vacant. It is staggering that major teaching hospitals have such vacancies. In the subheading of the report it indicates that there is a crisis in microbiology.
Animals form part of the most controversial and difficult area in the report. The noble Earl, Lord Clanwilliam, referred to the evidence of the Soil Association. The second volume of evidence repays careful study. Some of the evidence received was excellent, particularly from organisations such as the Association of Medical Microbiologists. As someone whose family by preference eats organic food and looks for organic food in the supermarket, the evidence of the Soil Association had considerable attractions. But when we look at the situation, I am not wholly convinced. Let us face it, for 30 years farmers have used growth promoters for their animals. After all, that is why the Swann Committee was originally set up. It seems to me that there are conflicting views about the Swedish experience in terms of additional antibiotics that may be used for therapeutic use once we have banned growth promoters. I do not believe that the US evidence is conclusive; indeed, it appears that avoparcin was never licensed in the United States and yet it has major problems with vancomycin-resistant bacteria.
I believe that the prudent and proper course of action is to wait for the Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Safety of Food to report on the assessment of risks of drug resistance across the food chain, including the use of growth promoters. I think that that is a fair thing to do. Indeed, as we heard during the debate on the Statement about support for the farming industry, farmers are having a pretty hard time of it. We have to be sure of the scientific grounds for banning or extending bans on the contents of growth promoters.
Therefore, what conclusions should we be drawing, as policy makers and as politicians, from the Select Committee's report? First, the Government are clearly active in one respect. I welcome the recommendations issued in September by the Standing Medical Advisory Committee on the whole area of prescription of antibiotics and antimicrobials. However, I also believe that there are many further actions that the department needs to undertake to follow up the report. That is but a first step.
The strongest point in the report was the committee's conclusion that the major recommendation of the Swann Committee--namely, to have a single committee to regulate and oversee the use of antibiotics both in humans and in animals--was never followed. That seems to me to be a staggering fact. Here we are in 1998 talking about a committee which made what seemed to be an extremely sensible proposal in 1969, but we are still no further forward.
Moreover, we know that in the NHS a great deal of effort is currently being concentrated on information technology. We have seen the Information for Health information technology paper. That seems to be absolutely key in trying to regulate our use of antibiotics, our surveillance of how they are used and the way in which we test for infections. For example, we know that the development of Prodigy could have a great impact in terms of understanding what is being prescribed, where and how and, indeed, in what circumstances. Then we have the COMPASS system in
We have heard about the whole issue of the crisis in academic microbiology, but we need basic medical education for the generality of doctors about the importance of microbiology. We need greater status for medical microbiologists. We need better staffed microbiology labs. We need not only more money for the PHLS--and this was something that came out strongly in the report--but we also need more money for basic microbiological research. Quite often the more glamorous things are funded by MRC, but there appears to be very little money available for this kind of absolutely essential research. Obviously we need to have more public education about antibiotics.
It seems to me that it is not purely antibiotics and antimicrobials that we are talking about. Noble Lords may have seen a recent television programme which dealt with the whole question of antibacterials as used in the kitchen. They seem to me to represent a very important area where bug resistance can build up because one is using these powerful agents in the home. Indeed, people are encouraged to use them when actually detergents and soap--which most microbiologists will tell you they use in hospitals--should be used, rather than using these antibacterials which will build up resistance in our own homes.
Aside from antibiotics and antimicrobial agents there are other potentially interesting areas of research. I confess to something of a hobby-horse in the area of what are called "bacteriophages". About 18 months ago there was a "Horizon" television programme on these, and yet there is a stunning silence from the academic community on this matter. These are viruses that attack individual bacteria and may be a fruitful area of research. What research is being done on them? All I have come across is a rather voluminous website which is interesting but does not give any indication that there is much happening among members of the research community in the UK.
The point that came across to me in the committee's report is that this is an international issue. We cannot isolate ourselves from the problem. I refer to the diseases I mentioned earlier and the way bacteria can spread and the way in which their resistant strains can cross boundaries. International co-operation is needed to research those matters. It is needed on the animal front and on the human front. A huge task lies ahead of us. When the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior, introduced the debate he said that the report was a blueprint for action which must start now. He hit the nail absolutely on the head. I can think of no other agenda
Lord Lucas: My Lords, I, too, add my congratulations to my noble friend Lord Soulsby, to his committee and to its clerk for this superb report. I have never come across a report that is so well written and is so readable on such an important subject. It is a report which I am sure will be referred to for many years because of the wealth of well presented evidence that it contains, and yet it is a clarion call for action now. A loud call indeed is needed to wake up this Government!
This is a quite breathtaking complacency on the part of this Government. An enormous amount needs to be done. It seems astonishing to me that neither the Minister for Public Health nor any of her civil servants have had the kind of experience--with regard to someone close to them or someone they know--that the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, described so graphically. I refer to the experience of sitting watching someone's pulse rate climb and his or her temperature climb while the doctors vainly try one antibiotic after another. In the end in most cases they find something, but it is a terrifying experience waiting to see if they will. That takes us right back to the days which the noble Lord, Lord Perry of Walton, described so graphically from his own memory when infection was commonplace and when people died in their tens of thousands from these infectious diseases. We got used to it then but it is a new thing to us now and it is frightening. I hope that some of that fear and some of that concern will manage to communicate itself to this Government.
There is a great deal that this report suggests should be done and most of it can be done with a great deal of ease, given government will. We have heard some extraordinary ideas this evening. My noble friend has suggested that we turn to organic farming as a recipe for dealing with this. Indeed there is much sense in that. Organic farmers have recognised that they cannot beat nature and have to control it by working with it. There is much we can do from that angle in dealing with bugs. Many of us--I am glad to say I do--consume Yakult
We have heard from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench two versions of their policies. I shall leave to the Minister which of those two versions from his coalition partners he chooses to take as the official version, but at least there is a breadth of view there.
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