Antibiotic resistance is putting us all at risk of contracting bacterial infections that were once straightforward to treat.
Antibiotics are the most effective defence against bacterial diseases and since their discovery they have dramatically changed human health, adding 20 years to our lives1. But their overuse and misuse in the last few decades have led to a very dangerous resistance to even common infections. Bacterial resistance to antibiotics certainly isn’t a new phenomenon and, in some reports, has even been described as a public health crisis2. But just how concerned should you be? And what has caused it?
What is antibiotic resistance?
Antibiotic resistance refers to the ineffectiveness of a drug to cure a bacterial infection. The bacteria can adapt to survive the effects of the antibiotic, which puts the patient at risk of deteriorating health and in some cases, death. The problem only gets worse when it spreads throughout hospitals or other healthcare centres as more people become infected by a resistant illness.
Certain high-profile bugs have already shown strong resistance to the drugs designed to fight them. Superbug MRSA is now so resilient to different treatments that it is becoming an ever more threatening infection. The STI gonorrhoea is another worrying disease that some drugs have proven ineffective at fighting3. Containing and defeating the issue is clearly a complex task, even if the causes are relatively straightforward.
What has caused antibiotic resistance?
One of the main causes of antibiotic resistance is the sheer number of antibiotics that healthcare professionals are prescribing to patients2. Antibiotics kill bacteria, not viruses. The use of antibiotics in attempting to treat illnesses caused by viruses, such as colds and influenza, unnecessarily decreases its effectiveness against bacterial infections. Frequent antibiotic use, particularly in instances where they are not needed, puts selective pressure on bacteria, allowing them to withstand and survive the effects of an antibiotic. But it isn’t just doctors and GPs that are contributing to the issue. Patients are also adding to the pressure with a lack of understanding on how antibiotics work and by not following the guidance of their doctor. Skipping doses, not taking the antibiotic at regular intervals and sharing it with others all heighten the problem.
What can be done?
First and foremost, a change in attitudes is needed to tackle the issue and stop an already damaging situation from getting much worse. Initiatives such as the European Antibiotic Awareness Day (EAAD) are helping to educate people and encourage the correct use of antibiotics. The European-wide drive, held each year on November 18th is spearheaded by Public Health England (PHE).
Supporting EAAD is the NHS’ own Antibiotic Awareness Campaign. It strongly states that hospitals need to make antibiotic prescriptions a priority through4:
- Targeting antibiotic therapy
- Implementing structured antimicrobial stewardship plans
- Reviewing local surveillance and assessing microbiological data
Pharmaceutical firms also have a responsibility to develop new antibiotics that the bugs haven’t yet adapted to, as well as new vaccines for common viruses. However, the lack of profitability from these ventures means that drug manufacturers aren’t investing as much capital as they could to create the necessary medication. And when a new antibiotic is created it is most often a chemical variant of one that came before, which bacteria can quickly build a resistance to. Drive-AB has also been set up to help. Another European-wide undertaking, the organisation aims to drive “reinvestment in research and development and responsible antibiotic use”.
How can you help yourself?
While antibiotic resistance needs to be addressed up and down the private and public healthcare sector, there are steps you can take yourself. As we touched upon above, you should always follow the guidance of your doctor or GP when antibiotics are prescribed. This means taking the correct dosage when told to and making sure you complete the course, even after you feel better. Otherwise the bacteria that is still left in the body that wasn’t exposed to the antibodies, is given a chance to build resistance. Practicing basic hygiene, like washing your hands, is another way to reduce the transmission of infection. You should also never share your antibiotics with others. If you do, it’s likely that you have not fully completed your course and are leaving yourself vulnerable to resistant bacteria.
You can find out more advice and information about antibiotics here.
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