By Kate Kelland

LONDON, March 11 (Reuters) - Antibiotic resistance poses a catastrophic threat to medicine and could mean patients having minor surgery risk dying from infections that can no longer be treated, Britain's top health official said on Monday.

Sally Davies, the chief medical officer for England, said global action is needed to fight antibiotic, or antimicrobial, resistance and fill a drug "discovery void" by researching and developing new medicines to treat emerging, mutating infections.

Only a handful of new antibiotics have been developed and brought to market in the past few decades, and it is a race against time to find more, as bacterial infections increasingly evolve into "superbugs" resistant to existing drugs.

"Antimicrobial resistance poses a catastrophic threat. If we don't act now, any one of us could go into hospital in 20 years for minor surgery and die because of an ordinary infection that can't be treated by antibiotics," Davies told reporters as she published a report on infectious disease.

"And routine operations like hip replacements or organ transplants could be deadly because of the risk of infection."

One of the best known superbugs, MRSA, is alone estimated to kill around 19,000 people every year in the United States - far more than HIV and AIDS - and a similar number in Europe.

And others are spreading. Cases of totally drug resistant tuberculosis have appeared in recent years and a new wave of "super superbugs" with a mutation called NDM 1, which first emerged in India, has now turned up all over the world, from Britain to New Zealand.

Last year the WHO said untreatable superbug strains of gonorrhoea were spreading across the world.

Laura Piddock, a professor of microbiology at Birmingham University and director of the campaign group Antibiotic Action, welcomed Davies' efforts to raise awareness of the problem.

"There are an increasing number of infections for which there are virtually no therapeutic options, and we desperately need new discovery, research and development," she said.

Davies called on governments and organisations across the world, including the World Health Organisation and the G8, to take the threat seriously and work to encourage more innovation and investment into the development of antibiotics.

"Over the past two decades there has been a discovery void around antibiotics, meaning diseases have evolved faster than the drugs to treat them," she said.

Davies called for more cooperation between the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries to preserve the existing arsenal of antibiotics, and more focus on developing new ones.

Increasing surveillance to keep track of drug-resistant superbugs, prescribing fewer antibiotics and making sure they are only prescribed when needed, and ensuring better hygiene to keep infections to a minimum were equally important, she said.

Nigel Brown, president of the Society for General Microbiology, agreed the issues demanded urgent action and said its members would work hard to better understand infectious diseases, reduce transmission of antibiotic resistance, and help develop new antibiotics.

"The techniques of microbiology and new developments such as synthetic biology will be crucial in achieving this," he said. (Editing by Jason Webb)

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