Find out what you can do to help prevent the spread of superbugs…
‘Superbugs’, or multi-drug resistant organisms, are a fast-progressing problem that could threaten the effectiveness of the antibiotics we rely on to treat bacterial infections within a matter of decades.
During this World Antibiotic Awareness Week (12 -18 November 2018), individuals are encouraged to learn more about the importance of using antibiotics responsibly and how they can contribute to the global effort to address drug resistance.
What happens when antibiotics are misused?
“When an infection is treated unnecessarily or inappropriately with antibiotics, bacteria present in the body have the ability to develop resistance against the antibiotics, which make these medicines increasingly ineffective and results in the development of so-called ‘superbugs’,” explains Angeliki Messina, quality systems and innovation manager at Netcare.
How are antibiotics misused?
“An example of misuse of antibiotics is when a person has fallen ill with a viral infection such as influenza cold or flu, for which antibiotics are generally not appropriate or effective, yet insists that their doctor prescribe them a course of antibiotics. Others may stop taking their antibiotics when they begin to feel well again, unaware that failure to complete the course of antibiotics encourages microbial resistance,” she adds.
“In other cases, a person may keep antibiotics that have been prescribed for one illness and then take the antibiotics later when they fall sick with another infection, without knowing whether the antibiotics are an appropriate treatment for that specific illness. Even if the illness seems the same, remember that many different infections may exhibit similar symptoms. This does not mean that the same antibiotic is appropriate for the treatment of illnesses with similar symptoms.
“In the event of a person then becoming really ill or sustaining an acute traumatic injury, for which actual antibiotic treatment is required, antibiotic resistance may unfortunately already be present. When the body’s natural defence mechanisms and immune system are disrupted or no longer intact, this contributes to a higher risk of infections, which may then not be responsive to antibiotics if the bacteria have developed resistance,” Messina explains.
A significant risk to human life and the global economy
Antimicrobial resistance, which is largely attributed to the inappropriate use of antibiotics by individuals in agriculture and in healthcare settings, is listed in the World Economic Forum’s 2018 Global Risk Report as a significant risk to human life and the global economy1.
A two-year study sponsored by the UK government and the Wellcome Trust, Review on Antimicrobial Resistance2, which was published in 2016, estimated that at least 700 000 deaths annually are attributable to drug resistant microorganisms. However, the review predicts that this could rise to 10 million deaths per year by 2050 unless there is a concerted global effort to address the problem.
How you can help
“Everyone has a role in the prevention of antibiotic resistance, and individuals can make a significant contribution in their daily lives through being more aware of the threat it poses and following a few simple guidelines,” Messina says.
- Embrace a healthy lifestyle, through eating a balanced nutritious diet, getting enough exercise, and practising good hygiene. By staying healthy, you can prevent many infectious bacterial illnesses and thereby avoid the need for antibiotics.
- Clean your hands regularly and thoroughly with soap and clean water in your home, office, school, gym, etc.
- If you do fall ill, do not pressure your healthcare professional to prescribe an antibiotic as they are generally not appropriate or effective for treating viral infections, such as flu.
- Antibiotics are not always the answer. Seek the advice of a qualified healthcare professional such as your doctor and, if it is medically necessary to take antibiotics, take them exactly as prescribed by the doctor or pharmacist to avoid antibiotic misuse.
- Do not skip any doses and do not ‘save’ antibiotics prescribed for one illness, to take when you fall ill at a later date.
- Do not share your prescribed antibiotics with others, as this can lead to misuse and fuel the development of antibiotic resistance. Remember that antibiotics are powerful drugs and can have negative side effects.
- Keep your vaccinations up to date.
- Talk to your family and friends about the importance of only taking antibiotics when necessary and appropriate.
- Tell your healthcare professional that you are concerned about antibiotic resistance and ask whether there are steps you can take to feel better and get symptomatic relief from your illness without using antibiotics.
- Pledge to become an ‘Antibiotic Guardian’ and select the simple action you commit to taking to protect the effectiveness of our antibiotics for the future. Visit antibioticguardian.com/south-africa and follow the easy steps, as directed on the website. This campaign, endorsed by the National Department of Health (NDoH) and the South African Antibiotic Stewardship Programme (SAASP) as well as the Federation of Infectious Disease Society of Southern Africa (FIDSSA), was established to help protect and conserve antibiotics for future generations in South Africa and to improve public knowledge and create greater awareness about antibiotic resistance.
Tips to prevent the spread of infection when visiting people in hospital
- Avoid visiting people in hospital if you are unwell yourself.
- It is very important to sanitise your hands when entering the hospital. Also use the sanitiser available in sanitiser dispensers throughout the hospital, to clean your hands before entering the ward, touching the patient and when leaving the patient.
- Visitors are encouraged to not wear anything below the elbows, where possible, when entering hospital wards. This means no watches, jewellery, or long sleeves, so that hands can be thoroughly sanitised.
“If we all undertake to use antibiotics responsibly, and only when they are truly warranted, as well as adopting behaviours that can reduce the chances of falling ill in the first place, then together we can help to prevent further development of antibiotic resistance.
“If we fail to take adequate measures now, in the decades to come we may be faced with the frightening scenario where our antibiotics will no longer be effective, and illnesses and diseases that we are able to cure with antibiotics at present could become potentially dangerous superbugs of the future,” Messina concluded.
Sources and further reading:
- World Economic Forum (2018) The Global Risks Report 2018, available at //reports.weforum.org/global-risks-2018/anti-microbial-resistance/
- O’Neill, et al. (2016) Review on Antimicrobial Resistance, available at https://amr-review.org/