by Dr Julia Clark | Director, Infection Management and Prevention Services
Imagine a future world where a case of tonsillitis could be life-threatening. Your child is sick and is getting worse by the day but there is nothing their doctor can do because antibiotics, which once would have saved them, no longer work. It’s a worrying thought, isn’t it?
Even more worrying is the fact that such a scenario may not be that far from reality if we continue to misuse and overuse antibiotics at the rate we currently are. According to the World Health Organisation, antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest threats to human health today.
So what is it? Antibiotic resistance happens when bacteria change to protect themselves from an antibiotic. When this happens, antibiotics that previously would have killed the bacteria, or stopped them from multiplying, no longer work.
Misuse and overuse of antibiotics means they are losing their power. And the more they are used, the more chance bacteria have to become resistant to them.
Bacterial infections such as golden staph that were once easily cured with antibiotics are becoming harder to treat. ‘Superbugs’ (bacteria that are resistant to several different antibiotics) are also more prevalent.
Australia is contributing to the problem with one of the highest rates of antibiotic consumption in the developed world – around 29 million prescriptions are issued annually.
Our generation takes antibiotics for granted but we must appreciate that antibiotics are a precious resource that we must handle with care (which is the theme for this year’s Global Antibiotic Awareness Week)
Health professionals, of course, have an obligation to ensure that antibiotics are used appropriately, for the right condition, dose and duration. However, consumers also have an important role to play.
So what can you do about it?
There are simple steps that everyone can take to help reduce the spread of antibiotic resistance. The first is to be aware of the following common mistakes and misconceptions people make about antibiotics:
- Do not use or ask for antibiotics if they are not needed. Antibiotics are only effective against bacterial infections. They have no effect on viral infections like colds or the flu, so please don’t ask your doctor for them. If you are usually healthy, your immune system will take care of most respiratory tract infections — both viral and some bacterial infections — by itself.
- Do not use old packs of antibiotics for a new infection.
- Do not share antibiotics with family and friends.
- Always follow the dosage and directions prescribed by your doctor and pharmacist – this includes the right amount and at the right time. If you do not follow the prescription, bacteria in your system can become resistant. It’s also vital that you always finish the full dose – even if you start feeling better.
If you or someone in your family is sick, it’s important to always practise good hygiene (wash hands properly and discard used tissues) to help prevent the spread of infection – and the transfer of antibiotic resistant bacteria to others.
NPS MedicineWise has a created a five-point pledge that consumers can take to join the fight against antibiotic resistance – take the pledge here
Know the risks
As well as adding to the threat of antibiotic resistance, misusing antibiotics has other risks. Antibiotics can cause side effects. In fact, as much as 10 per cent of people who take antibiotics will experience diarrhoea, nausea and vomiting, and thrush infections. Other less common side effects include intestinal infections, allergic reactions, fever and breathing problems. When antibiotics are necessary, the benefits always outweigh the risks but, when they are not, you may be taking an unnecessary risk.
Join the resistance!
By putting the points outlined here into practice and spreading the word about antibiotic resistance, you can be a part of the solution. Only together can make a difference and change the future.