This week marks World Antibiotics Awareness Week. Over the past 60 years we have come to take antibiotics for granted, treating them as a universal cure-all and taking them more often than might be necessary.
However, we are now paying the price for the overuse and misguided prescription of antibiotics, because so many bacterial infections have developed a resistance to them. Such is the threat to the world’s population from antibiotic resistance that the G8 has classified it alongside terrorism.
The recent Review on Antimicrobial Resistance estimates that by 2050 the global cost of antibiotic resistance will rise to £100 trillion and account for an extra 10 million deaths a year.
But it is not just over-prescription which is causing the problem – no new forms of antibiotics have been created for 30 years. As a consequence, health services across the world are struggling to contain bacterial diseases as the antibiotic arsenal available to them dwindles in effectiveness.
A world without antibiotics is a terrifying one – there would be no more safe routine surgery; a simple scratch could lead to serious infection or death; and bacterial diseases which until now we have had under control could rip through the human population.
This week Public Health England, in collaboration with Department of Health’s Expert Advisory Committee on Antimicrobial Resistance and Healthcare Associated Infections (ARHAI) and other bodies, has launched the Antibiotic Guardian campaign where those in health care, students and educators and members of the public are being asked to make at least one pledge towards ending the inappropriate use of antibiotics.
At Plymouth University we are contributing to the battle against resistance by developing a new family of antibiotics. We are developing epidermicin, a new antimicrobial agent, to the point where it can be trialled in humans to prevent diseases such as MRSA through use as a nasal spray.
In addition, and to test its effectiveness for treating other antibiotic resistant bacteria, we are investigating how epidermicin in ointment form performs in treating superficial skin infection. We are also investigating how epidermicin works, and will look at how it can be most effectively and safely produced to the scale at which it will be needed.
As will be the case for any new antibiotic, there will have to be precise guidelines for health services about how and when epidermicin can and should be used – moving away from the ‘scatter gun’ approach used previously to prescribing antibiotics more rationally with more targeted methods.
The Antibiotic Guardian campaign seeks to help us all understand the role of antibiotics, when to use them and when to not and asks us to take a pledge helping to protect antibiotics for future generations.
Antibiotics are not effective against coughs, colds, flu and most sore throats.
These are mainly caused by viruses, which antibiotics do not work against. Antibiotics cannot help you recover from infections caused by viruses because antibiotics are only effective against bacteria. Mild infections with bacteria also often get better without antibiotics.
If you have a cough, cold or sore throat, you should check with a pharmacist first about how to relieve your symptoms with over the counter treatments. However, if you have severe symptoms and warning signs such as difficulty breathing or sharp chest pain or serious illness you should seek immediate medical attention.
Taking antibiotics when you don’t need to will allow bacteria to develop a resistance to the antibiotic. Bacteria adapt and find ways to survive the effects antibiotics to the point where antibiotics no longer kill these germs. The more you use an antibiotic, the more likely it is that the bacteria will become resistant to it. When you take antibiotics, it can also kill the good bacteria, which live in and protect your body, making you more susceptible to infection from other harmful and potentially drug-resistant bacteria.
Drug-resistant infections are difficult to treat and can affect anyone; they are a particular threat to young children and older people and others with weakened immune systems.
When antibiotics are prescribed by a health professional it is important that you use them as directed. Antibiotics are given at a specific dose over a period of time to clear an infection - changing the dose may reduce the effectiveness of the antibiotics and enable bacteria to develop drug-resistance. Do not use a shorter course than prescribed and save some for next time as this is a particularly good way to make bacteria resistant. If you do have any antibiotics left from a previous prescription, it is important that they are returned to a pharmacy for safe disposal, rather than being put in the bin or down the sink.
The spread of drug-resistant infections is one of the biggest threats facing us today; routine treatments and operations rely on antibiotics to work. We all need to act now to stop the spread of antibiotic resistance, or else we may not have them for much longer.