Nfld. & Labrador

Infection deaths to rise if anti-microbial resistance not addressed: N.L. health minister

Infection could replace cancer as the leading cause of death if rising anti-microbial resistance renders antibiotics useless, John Haggie says.

Health Minister John Haggie warns problem could send health care back to the 1920s

Shigella bacteria is a common cause of diarrhea that for most people is an unpleasant but temporary illness that ends within a week. (CDC/Associated Press) (CDC/Associated Press)
Newfoundland and Labrador's health minister is warning infection could replace cancer as the leading cause of death in this province if rising anti-microbial resistance renders antibiotics useless.

"Our biggest emerging health problem over the next five years is going to be emerging anti-microbial resistance," said John Haggie.
Infection and sepsis will go back to being the lead killers in the absence of effective antibiotic.- John Haggie

He was at the provincial budget announcement in St. John's to talk about spending on health care, but Haggie gave an unexpected response to a question about spending on potentially unnecessary medical tests and treatments.

"This problem [anti-microbial resistance] could put acute health care back into the 1920s," he said.

In the 1920s, there were no antibiotics available to treat infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis and pneumonia. Alexander Fleming discovered the first antibiotic, penicillin, in 1928.

Newfoundland and Labrador Health Care Minister John Haggie says anti-microbial resistance could send health care back to the 1920s. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

Today, Haggie said Newfoundland and Labrador uses antibiotics twice as much, per capita, as any other jurisdiction in Canada or the U.S.

And worldwide, drug-resistant microbes are emerging as antibiotics are over-prescribed and misused. 

"The death rate from sepsis will start to rise," said Haggie of this consequences of this misuse of the drugs.

"So what will happen is that infection and sepsis will go back to being the lead killers in the absence of effective antibiotics. Currently the leading cause of death in this province in cancer. You go back to the 1920s, it was infection."

Sepsis is a life-threatening condition that happens when a body's response to infection damages its own tissues and organs.

Education about proper antibiotic use needed: Haggie

Limiting the use of antibiotics is expected to slow the emergence of drug-resistant microbes.The health minister says the provincial government must encourage education about proper use of antibiotics.​

"It would be inappropriate for a politician to be telling a prescriber how to prescribe. What we have to do in the first instance is educate them and provide them with the tools to see where the problems lie, not just provincially but in their own practice."

It would be inappropriate for a politician to be telling a prescriber how to prescribe.- John Haggie
The association that represents doctors in this province agrees with Haggie.

"Certainly we are all concerned about antibiotic use in the province and the Choosing Wisely initiative has been launched in this province, and that's an initiative both for physicians and educating our patients on appropriate antibiotic use," said Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association President Lynn Dwyer. 

St. John's family doctor Lynn Dwyer is president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association. (Mark Quinn/ CBC)

The NLMA agrees with Haggie that this is a real problem and they are willing to speak with him about addressing it.

Choosing Wisely NL, a group made up of both patients and health care professionals, was publicly launched in St. John's in October 2016.