Healthcare organisations will need to put in place significantly more robust hygiene measures if they are to cope with, and overcome, the next generation of harder-to-treat healthcare-associated infections, Professor Dame Sally Davies, the chief medical officer for England, has warned.
Her prediction was made as part of an annual report, which was published in March, that warned of the growing threat to the nation of antimicrobial resistance and infectious diseases.
Although the NHS has made good progress in reducing MRSA rates, which have fallen by 80% since 2003, new resistant strains of infection such as klebsiella would provide even tougher challenges for the future, Davies warned.
Among 17 recommendations, she called for antimicrobial resistance to be put on the national risk register and taken more seriously by politicians at an international level, including the G8 and the World Health Organisation. She added that the NHS would need better surveillance of data to monitor the developing situation.
There also needed to be more work carried out between the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries to preserve existing drugs and encourage the development of new antibiotics.
Antimicrobial resistance posed "a catastrophic threat" to public health, she warned, and could have a major effect on our ability to carry out minor surgery or routine operations within the next 20 years.
The NHS's achievements in reducing MRSA meant that many large, acute hospitals now had no more than two or three cases a year. Yet there are now 50 to 100 cases of "gram-negative" bacteria infection for every MRSA case.
The call was welcomed by the Royal College of Nursing, with Dr Peter Carter, its chief executive and general secretary, adding: "This is an important issue and it is the responsibility of everyone in health care, from front-line staff to the Government, to act.
"Nursing staff play an important role by driving improvements in infection prevention and supporting patient and public education on the use of antibiotics."
Professor Anthony Kessel, director of public health strategy and medical director at the Health Protection Agency, added: "We are very pleased that the chief medical officer is giving the issue of antibiotic resistance her full attention. This is not a clinical issue, but a societal one. We must change our attitude towards