Routine operations could become deadly "in the very near future" as bacteria evolve to resist the drugs we use to combat them. This process could erase a century of medical advances, say government doctors in a special editorial in The Lancet health journal.
Although the looming threat of antibiotic, or anti-microbial, resistance has been known about for years, the new warning reflects growing concern that the NHS and other national health systems, already under pressure from ageing populations, will struggle to cope with the rising cost of caring for people in the "post-antibiotic era".
In a stark reflection of the seriousness of the threat, England's deputy chief medical officer, Professor John Watson, said: "I am concerned that in 20 years, if I go into hospital for a hip replacement, I could get an infection leading to major complications and possible death, simply because antibiotics no longer work as they do now."
About 35 million antibiotics are prescribed by GPs in England every year. The more the drugs circulate, the more bacteria are able to evolve to resist them. In the past, drug development kept pace with evolving microbes, with a constant production line of new classes of antibiotics. But the drugs have ceased to be profitable and a new class has not been created since 1987.