As someone passion about antibiotic resistance I’m constantly trying to drive awareness in my immediate community but there continues to be a brush over attitude to this ’silent pandemic’. Whilst it’s clear we need more effective antibiotics and better ways to diagnose antibiotic susceptibility, there is still work to be done in the community.
In this article I hope to highlight how important it is to address antibiotic resistance on all levels. It’s about time that this “silent pandemic” stops being silent, and the gravity of the situation is acknowledged and acted upon.
What are antibiotics?
Antibiotics are a class of drugs that fight bacterial infections. They work by either killing bacteria or inhibiting their growth, which helps the body’s immune system to effectively combat the infections. Having first been discovered 100 years ago by Sir Alexander Fleming, antibiotics have saved millions of lives, they increased the human lifespan by a whopping 23 years and they continue to be an essential tool in modern medicine.
A significant threat to the achievements of Fleming and others who discovered many new antibiotics is the spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria, which has the potential to undermine health systems all over the world.
What is antimicrobial resistance?
Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is a phenomenon where microorganisms, such as bacteria, develop the ability to withstand the effects of drugs that were previously effective against them. This means previously treatable illnesses like pneumonia or tuberculosis become extremely difficult or in some cases impossible to treat. It’s worth noting that antimicrobial resistance does occur naturally however the majority of antibiotic resistances are promoted by our use of antibiotics. AMR has been rising for years, but a spike in antibiotic use during the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the process further.
Antibiotic resistance can affect anyone at any age and It’s likely you won’t know you are resistant to particularly antibiotics until the exact moment you need them most.
Antibiotic resistance in the community
A while ago I did a poll on LinkedIn posing a scenario to my connections in which you’re feeling unwell and someone you know has antibiotics left over from a previous illness. I asked individuals to vote on whether they would use the antibiotics or not. Whilst my network is heavily scientific focused with 70% voting ‘no way’, I still had multiple ‘yes, why not’ votes from people I know and respect.
Why is this such a big deal some may (and did) ask?
Well, misuse of antibiotics is one of the primary drivers of antimicrobial resistance. Unfortunately, antibiotics don’t stop at bad bacteria, when targeting the infection causing bacteria in our bodies antibiotics can also inadvertently wipe out the other bacteria in our bodies. By taking antibiotics not specifically prescribed for you when you feel ill, you could be killing good bacteria unnecessarily. In addition, and I cannot stress this enough – antibiotics DO NOT treat viral infections like flu, most coughs or COVID-19. If you take antibiotics when you have a viral infection it not only won’t cure your infection, it won’t stop you passing your illness to others and it will promote you becoming more resistant to antibiotics you may actually need in the future.
Don’t get me wrong, when it comes health in the community, I understand it’s not quite as simple as I may have made it seem above. In some exceptional circumstances there are big decisions to be made. We saw this in the UK in late 2022 when we had a outbreak of Strep A in primary schools. Strep A is a common type of bacteria which has mostly mild or easily treated symptoms, but some can be very serious which led to the deaths of over 60 children.
During this time the government were scrambling to protect children whilst also trying not to disrupt their education following a turbulent few years during the Covid pandemic. In December, the schools minister, Nick Gibb, suggested that preventive antibiotics could be given to children in England at schools affected by Strep A infections.
Whilst it’s worth noting I don’t believe they went ahead with this initiative, at the time the headline left me both concerned for children and worried about how quickly all the prior work to prevent antibiotic resistance in the community could be undone. The long-term effects of mass prescribing penicillin could cause potential antibiotic resistance for many children who may rely of penicillin for a range of infections throughout their life.
Preventing antimicrobial resistance is a complex and multifaceted challenge that requires collective efforts from individuals, healthcare professionals, and policy makers, but that doesn’t take away how important it is to spread awareness throughout the community on how we can help.
If you take anything from this article, please take the following;
Written by Helen Covey – Associate Director, Diagnostics
Connect with Helen on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/helencovey-ivdexpert/
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