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  • by Trevor Loveday

Antibiotics discharged into River Thames at levels to breed superbugs study finds

Antibiotics from effluent discharge in three-quarters of the River Thames catchment, were “likely to be at levels high enough for antibiotic-resistant bacteria to develop” according to findings from a recent study.

The researchers at Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) estimated that antibiotics entering the River Thames would need to be cut by as much as 80% to avoid the development and spread of antibiotic-resistant “superbugs”.

The findings echo a warning last week from England’s chief medical officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, that antibiotic resistant bacteria could pose a more immediate risk to humanity than climate change, and may kill at least 10 million people a year across the world.

According to the CEH researchers, once taken, up to 90% of the dose of a prescribed antibiotic is excreted so it ends up in the sewerage system. About half end up in rivers when effluent is discharged. That creates a pool of bacteria exposed to the antibiotics so those with antibiotic resistant genes can multiply.

To stem the build up of antibiotic resistant strains the CEH recommends:

  • reducing prescriptions1 where the drugs will not reduce the infection, or the course of treatment is longer than is medically necessary;

  • preventative action so fewer medicines are needed in the first place, such as more rapid diagnosis of medical conditions, greater uptake of vaccinations for illnesses and better hygiene controls in hospitals; and

  • increased investment in research and development of new wastewater treatment processes that would remove the drugs and bugs from sewage.

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