Overuse of antibiotics is accelerating bacterial resistance

Antibiotic resistance is a growing global health threat, which is mainly driven by the misuse of antibiotics in humans and animals.

Taking antibiotics too often or for the wrong reasons can alter bacteria to such a degree that renders antibiotics ineffective. This is known as antibiotic or antimicrobial resistance (ABR/AMR).

Since 2015, global action has been taken by governments around the world to tackle the problem, but the ongoing misuse of these drugs has led to an acceleration of antimicrobial resistance, with many microbes now resistant to even the most powerful antibiotics. 

World Antimicrobial Awareness Week (18-24 November) has been set aside to improve awareness and understanding of AMR among the public and healthcare workers to reduce the spread of AMR in communities.

Elani van Zyl, antimicrobial category manager for Pharma Dynamics, highlights that at least 30% of antibiotics that are presently prescribed are not necessary.

“Too often, antibiotics are still prescribed for respiratory conditions that are caused by viruses. These include the common cold, sore throat, stomach flu, sinus and ear infections, as well as bronchitis.

“These excess prescriptions, which run into millions annually, put patients at an increased risk of superbugs like carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae gut bacteria, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus and multi-drug-resistant Mycobacterium tuberculosis that can be deadly.

“Antibiotics should only be prescribed for bacterial infections, as they are not effective against viral infections. Taking antibiotics for a viral infection won’t treat the infection, make you feel better or prevent others from getting sick. On the contrary, it could lead to harmful side effects and antibiotic resistance.”

She says among the reasons antibiotic use remains high is because doctors are still being pressurised by patients to prescribe antibiotics, which means more bacteria are likely to pass on their drug-resistant properties to others.

The public and healthcare practitioners can all help to ensure the correct use of antibiotics by following these guidelines:

1.     Don’t pressurise your doctor to prescribe an antibiotic. Trust him/her to make the right diagnosis.

2.     Practise good hygiene by washing your hands regularly with soap and water, or use hand sanitiser.

3.     Clean and disinfect cuts and wounds to avoid possible bacterial infections.

4.     Take your antibiotics as prescribed by your doctor and complete the course. While it may be tempting to stop taking the antibiotic when you feel better, you need to take the full treatment to kill all the bacteria that’s causing the illness. When you stop taking the antibiotic prematurely, the chances are higher that some bacteria survive. They then multiply and become resistant.

5.     Don’t share antibiotics with someone else and don’t save some for future use. It may not be the right antibiotic and is likely not the right dose, which only promotes the spread of ABR.

6.     Notify your doctor in case of side effects after taking antibiotics.

7.     Make sure you and your children are up to date with vaccines, which protect against many bacterial infections such as diphtheria and whooping cough (pertussis).

8.     Wash fruit and vegetables before eating, and cook meat thoroughly, to limit the spread of bacteria through food.

“Antibiotics can save lives, but if we continue to use them irresponsibly, they won’t be effective at fighting life-threatening illnesses in the future and will put millions of lives at risk. Already 1.27 million deaths occur annually as a result of AMR and a further 3.68 million people die from illnesses related to AMR complications. If AMR rates continue to climb as they are, it is expected to claim 10 million lives per annum by 2050.

“If we all do our bit, we can slow the spread and extend the lifespan of current antibiotics,” says van Zyl.

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