A summit of infectious diseases experts has heard warnings that antibiotic-resistant superbugs are spreading quickly around the world, and for the first time in decades there is no new generation of more powerful drugs waiting in the wings that can stop them.
Experts are calling on the federal government to formulate a national strategy to deal with the challenge. They say that, unless met, it could set the world back towards the medical experience of the 1930s -- when operations and infections now considered routine often proved fatal because of unstoppable infections.
Tom Gottlieb, the president of the Australasian Society for Infectious Diseases, said he and his colleagues were seeing patients with untreatable infections more often -- yet there were no effective monitoring systems to track their location and frequency.
"This is an epidemic, just like you think of the flu as an epidemic," Dr Gottlieb said.
"It's a major public health problem and one that has really crept under the government's health radar."
Dr Gottlieb said even when infections remained treatable, they would place an increasing load on health services.
There were already cases of urinary tract infections that previously could be treated at home with oral antibiotics, but which now responded only to intravenous antibiotic treatment in hospital, he said -- increasing costs and exposing patients to the risk of further infections.
There have been at least three cases in Australia of the most resistant superbugs yet seen -- those carrying the NDM1 gene, which renders them resistant to even the last-resort class of antiobiotics, called carbapenems.
Well over 100 cases of NDM1 infections have been recorded on the Indian subcontinent, and India's role as a centre for cosmetic surgery is thought to be helping the bugs to spread worldwide.
Dr Gottlieb said that while the rise of resistance was inevitable, it was being accelerated by the use of antibiotics for conditions that did not require them, and by the "stupid" practice of adding them to animal feed.
Otto Cars, chairman of the International Action Network on Antibiotic Resistance, said the waning effectiveness of antibiotics would pose the biggest threat to cancer patients, transplant patients and others with depressed immune systems.
"In these situations, antibiotics are really essential, and if they don't work we are going to lose more patients," Professor Cars said.
"I don't want to be a doomsday prophet, but we have to be realistic -- in the next five to 10 years, the situation will be a lot worse."