Address by Mr Micheál Martin T.D., Minister for Health and Children, at the launch of the Strategy for Antimicrobial Resistance in Ireland (SARI)

As Minister for Health and Children it is my great pleasure to officially launch the Strategy for Antimicrobial Resistance in Ireland.

Antibiotics are one of the greatest medical advances of the past 100 years. Prior to their discovery infections such as pneumonia, TB and septicaemia were among the commonest causes of death in Ireland and elsewhere. Antibiotics have allowed us to successfully treat such infections and have impacted on all areas of healthcare. Indeed many of the advances in healthcare over the past 50 years such as transplantation, intensive care units, cancer therapy and many other innovations would not be possible without antibiotics. One American study estimated that antibiotics have extended the average lifespan by 10 years, whereas finding a cure for all forms of cancer would only extend the average lifespan by three years. It is clear that we owe much of our current health and well being to these life saving drugs.

Unfortunately the benefits that we have gained from antibiotics are now under threat. Overuse of antibiotics, in both humans and animals, has led to the development of antibiotic resistance. Antibiotic resistance has become a global problem, one from which Ireland is not immune. Through the National Disease Surveillance Centre Irish laboratories have been participating in the European Antimicrobial Resistance Surveillance System. This has given us some idea of the scale of the problem of antibiotic resistance in Ireland. Ireland has a high rate of methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus, better known as MRSA, compared to other northern European countries. We also have a high rate of penicillin resistant Streptococcus pneumoniae, the commonest cause of pneumonia in the community. As outlined in SARI antibiotic resistance is a problem among a wide range of other bacteria causing infection in Ireland.

Infections caused by antibiotic-resistant organisms are difficult, and costly, to treat. They result in an unnecessary excess burden of illness for patients and their families. They also result in unnecessary excess costs to our healthcare system. Other countries have succeeded in tackling the problem of antibiotic resistance and there is no reason to believe that we can not achieve the same results here.

The Department of Health and Children recognised the urgent need to tackle this problem and asked the National Disease Surveillance Centre to make recommendations to deal with antibiotic resistance in Ireland. This required a multidisciplinary endeavour with representation from all areas of Irish healthcare. The Strategy for Antimicrobial Resistance in Ireland is the result of this endeavour and we should acknowledge the tremendous work that has gone into preparing this document.

Although SARI is the end result of these efforts, it is only the first step in the battle against antibiotic resistance in Ireland. Some progress has already been made through Ireland’s participation in the European Antimicrobial Resistance Surveillance System, the North/South study of MRSA in Ireland and local initiatives for control of infections and judicious antibiotic use.

The recommendations contained in SARI set out the steps that will be required to deal with the problem of antibiotic resistance in Ireland. These broadly fall into four categories:

  • surveillance of resistance and antibiotic use;
  • hygiene and prevention of infection;
  • judicious use of antibiotics in hospitals and the community; and
  • education of health care workers, patients and the general public.

Implementing these recommendations will require considerable commitment from all areas of health care, along with the necessary financial resources. The Department of Health and Children fully supports the implementation of the SARI recommendations.

Achieving the goal of reducing antibiotic resistance in Ireland will not be easy, but it is a goal that we must achieve. Doing so will benefit all of us by alleviating much of the burden of illness associated with infections while reducing excess costs to our health service. The alternative is to see ever-increasing levels of antibiotic resistance, spiralling healthcare costs and a return to the pre-antibiotic era of untreatable infections.

SARI shows us the way forward and I am confident that together we can successfully tackle the problem of antibiotic resistance in Ireland.