By Ben Hirschler
LONDON (Reuters) - Europe faces a growing threat from superbugs that are resistant to a powerful, last-resort class of antibiotics known as carbapenems, the EU's disease monitoring agency said on Friday.
It is the latest in a series of warnings about antibiotic resistance from healthcare authorities around the world who fear that in future simple infections may no longer respond to medical treatment.
Overuse and misuse of antibiotics has fuelled a rise in drug-resistant infections and experts are particularly alarmed about bacteria that cannot be killed with carbapenems, the most powerful class of antibiotic drugs.
The proportion of infections resistant to carbapenems has increased sharply in the last four years - particularly in southern Europe - and almost all European countries now have reported cases, the European Centre for Diseases Prevention and Control (ECDC) said.
The most severe cases involve bloodstream infections, but drug-resistant bugs can also more frequently cause serious problems in the respiratory and urinary tracts.
The ECDC data showed that the proportion of bloodstream infections due to Klebsiella pneumoniae, a common cause of illness in hospital patients, that were resistant to carbapenems was above 5 percent in 2012 in five countries - Greece, Cyprus, Italy, Romania and Slovakia.
In 2009, only Greece and Cyprus exceeded that threshold.
And the ECDC said a new concern was the emergence of carbapenem-resistant Acinetobacter bacteria, which now represent more than 25 percent of infections in eight of 18 countries reporting data.
"Carbapenems are the last-line class of antibiotics, so the situation is really worrying," ECDC director Marc Sprenger said.
"Since 2009, it has become increasingly common for hospitals to be faced with treating patients that have carbapenem-resistant infections, often meaning that old and toxic drugs are used."
MORE RESEARCH NEEDED
In addition to the need for more prudent use of antibiotics - including a greater awareness among the public that they cannot kill viruses - officials said there had to be more research into new antibiotics.
In recent years, there has been a rush for the exit by the drugs industry as its researchers have struggled to find leads for novel antimicrobial drugs. Companies have turned instead to more profitable lines of drug research, including treatments for cancer and chronic diseases.
Pfizer, once the leader in the field, closed its antibiotic research center in Connecticut in 2011, to the dismay of many scientists. It now focuses anti-bacterial work on vaccines.
Others to have quit include Bristol-Myers Squibb and Eli Lilly, leaving only a handful of firms like GlaxoSmithKline and Merck & Co in the game.
Switzerland's Roche, however, has re-entered the arena through a $550 million tie-up with privately held Polyphor this month to develop and commercialize an experimental antibiotic against hospital superbugs.
Roche's initiative was welcomed by Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, speaking at a news conference that was webcast from Brussels on Friday.
"We need to find ways to use valuable antimicrobial drugs more wisely and to develop new drugs and treatments," she said, adding that an EU decision to provide funding to Polyphor under an antibiotic research project was vindicated by Roche's move.
(Editing by Pravin Char)