We‘ve all heard how we shouldn’t take antibiotics unless absolutely necessary.
Fears over that direst of situations known as “antibiotic resistance” seem to have medical professionals in a panic on a regular basis.
In fact, some experts have said:
“the reduction in effectiveness of antibiotics is one of the major health challenges of our age”.
This is why leading organisations from across the health sector have banded together and called for a reduction in the amount of prescribed antibiotics.
A summit to be held in London will gather together doctors, pharmacists and nurses from such esteemed health bodies as the Royal College of Physicians, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society and the Faculty of Public Health, among others. These medical professionals will be calling for strategies to roll back antibiotic prescriptions to 2010 levels.
Hospitals and GPs increased prescriptions for antibiotics by 6% between 2010 ands 2013, according to Public Health England.
What are antibiotics?
Antibiotics are medicines that fight off bacterial infections. There are hundreds of different antibiotics produced today, with each medicine often better at treating a different type of infection.
Antibiotics can be used to treat relatively mild conditions like acne and urinary tract infections, as well as potentially life-threatening illnesses like pneumonia and meningitis.
Antibiotics revolutionised healthcare after Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1929. They massively reduced the death toll during World War II, and continue to be used to cure previously incurable conditions like pneumonia, tuberculosis, salmonella and chlamydia.
What is antibiotic resistance and why is it a problem?
Fast-replicating bacteria can become resistant to antibiotics over time. This happens through a simple case of natural selection; bacteria not affected by the antibiotic will survive and rapidly reproduce.
It is bacteria’s ability to evolve and overcome medicines that causes such a problem. Antibiotics are heavily used in hospitals and throughout the wider community to control bacterial infections. If all bacteria became resistant to antibiotics, we will no longer be able to use them.
There are already a class of infections that are resistant to multiple antibiotics. We know these as ‘superbugs’, such as MRSA.
MRSA is a type of bacterial infection which is resistant to many antibiotics and therefore cannot be effectively treated. If other bacterial infections, such as pneumonia and tuberculosis, also become resistant, we could find ourselves with a world-wide medical emergency on our hands.
Diseases that we have come to think of as treatable could come back with a vengeance, unstoppable and more deadly than ever.
What is causing the resistance?
There are two main causes of antibiotic resistance: taking antibiotics when it isn’t necessary, and not following a course of antibiotics correctly.
Antibiotics only work on bacterial infections; they will not treat viral infections such as colds or flu.
Over the years, some doctors have prescribed antibiotics as a catch-all to clear up any secondary infection that may have resulted for the symptoms of colds and flu, such as a chest infection. However, this practise is not only ineffective, it is also damaging to the general health of the population. Unnecessary antibiotic use gives bacteria a head start for developing resistance.
Patients with colds or flu should treat them with rest, plenty of fluids, and painkillers, rather than antibiotics which will have no effect.
Click here for more information on treating colds and flu.
It’s not only taking antibiotics when not necessary that contributes towards resistance, but also taking a course of antibiotics incorrectly.
A full course of antibiotics should kill all bacteria and prevent the illness coming back.
Patients who not stick to the treatment instructions may only kill some of the bacteria, leaving others to develop a resistance.
If you are prescribed antibiotics you must:
- take the antibiotics at regular intervals
- never skip doses of antiobiotics
- always complete the full course of antibiotics
If you fail to do any of these, you will be providing another rung in the ladder to antibiotic resistance.
Hope for the future
Philip Howard, consultant pharmacist in antimicrobials and spokesman for the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, said: “Antibiotics save lives.
“Anyone who comes to my hospital with an infection will get an antibiotic promptly when it is the right choice of treatment.
“I believe we will be able to meet these challenging targets by ensuring we all use antibiotics more carefully, and by fine tuning or stopping the antibiotic when test results are known.
“Where an infection is proven, we need to complete the course of antibiotics. This will lead to better patient care as well as reduced resistance.
“I believe these two aims are compatible and mutually supportive.”