The Fight Against Antibiotic Resistance

Fast acting and effective, it’s tempting to view antibiotic medicine as a modern-day panacea; but antibiotic resistance is on the rise—prompting doctors to think twice before prescribing these drugs.

Antibiotics are vital medicines for treating bacterial infections in both humans and animals. However, bacteria can adapt and find new ways to survive the effects of an antibiotic. For those seeking a quick-fix solution to their healthcare needs, antibiotics can seem like an efficient way to quell nasty infections—or even fight off a cold. But misuse of this medicine is contributing to its resistance, which means it is losing its effectiveness at an increasing rate.

The more we use antibiotics, the greater the chance bacteria will become resistant to them and they can no longer be used to treat infections. What’s more is we aren’t discovering new antibiotics at a fast enough rate to compensate for their growing obsolescence.

Driven by overuse and inappropriate prescription, antibiotic resistance is one of the most significant threats to patient safety in Europe. To slow this trend down, it is fundamental to use antibiotics in the right way—to use the right drug, in the right dose, at the right time and for the right duration.

‘Antibiotics should be taken as prescribed and never saved for later or shared with others,’ says the NHS Choices website. ‘The inappropriate use and prescribing of antibiotics are causing the development of resistance.’

What is the problem?

Antibiotic resistance is just one strand of antimicrobial resistance—a global concern according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). ‘New resistance mechanisms are emerging and spreading globally, threatening our ability to treat common infectious diseases, resulting in prolonged illness, disability and death,’ WHO states. ‘Antimicrobial resistance increases the cost of healthcare with lengthier stays in hospitals and more intensive care required.’

The term ‘antibiotic resistance’ only applies to bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics. According to Public Health England (PHE), antibiotic consumption increased by 6.5 percent between 2011 and 2014 in England. PHE says many patients have been inappropriately prescribed an antibiotic to treat minor ailments, such as coughs, colds or sore throats.

Why do we need to act now?

According to government statistics, a failure to address the problem of antibiotic resistance could lead to an estimated 10 million deaths by 2050, costing £66 trillion. Already across Europe, an estimated 25,000 people die each year as a result of hospital infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria. In England, E. coli is the most common cause of bacterial infection in the blood.

Global concern around the issue is exacerbated by the fact that discoveries of new classes of antibiotics are at an all-time low. Only three of the 41 antibiotics in development can protect against the majority of the most recent bacteria. For this reason, the UK government takes the issue of antibiotic resistance as seriously as a flu pandemic or major flooding.

What can we do about it?

One of the principle actions we can take is to encourage responsible prescription of antibiotics. The vast majority—74 percent—of these drugs are prescribed by a GP. There are a number of incentives in place to help healthcare professionals reduce antibiotic prescribing. In 2015, PHE advised NHS England on the development of a Quality Premium for antibiotic use, which would encourage Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) to reduce prescribing of antibiotics by at least 1 percent.

As patients, we can think twice before we ask our doctors to prescribe us antibiotics, especially for minor ailments like the common cold. If your body can fight off the infection on its own, it’s always better to let it. Seek advice from your pharmacist about how you can treat minor illnesses before going to your GP.

Raising awareness

European Antibiotic Awareness Day (EAAD) is held every year on November 18. The Europe-wide public health initiative encourages the responsible use of antibiotics. PHE is responsible for coordinating all EAAD activities in England.

Antibiotic Guardian, an antibiotic resistance awareness campaign, invites visitors to its website to become ‘antibiotic guardians’ and make a pledge about how they plan to make better use of antibiotics. Without effective antibiotics, many routine treatments and procedures will become progressively more dangerous, the campaign explains.

From chemotherapy to basic broken bones, a host of ailments and treatments rely on access to functioning antibiotics. For those who want to take steps to help save these important medicines from becoming obsolete, the Antibiotic Guardian website offers a series of pledge messages to choose from. One reads: ‘For infections that our bodies are good at fighting off on their own, like coughs, colds, sore throats and flu, I pledge to talk to my pharmacist about how to treat these symptoms first rather than going to the GP.’

By encouraging people to become antibiotic guardians, we can go beyond simply raising awareness and encourage people to take just one concrete personal action, leading to much wider changes in behaviour.

Did you know?

Global failure to address the problem of antibiotic resistance could result in 10 million deaths by 2050 costing £66 trillion.

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