30 January 2018

How close are we to an antibiotics armageddon?

The news is currently filled with dire warnings over the emergence of antibiotic-resistant diseases and the potential doomsday scenario of the world sliding towards a post-antibiotic era. Unfortunately, this is one of those media scare stories that has a very real chance of becoming a grim reality.

November saw the launch of the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) World Antibiotic Awareness Week, and for the first time ever the NHS has launched a nationwide television campaign urging people not to demand antibiotics from GPs. The overuse of such drugs has led to the evolution of diseases that are immune to the effects of antibiotics. If the trend continues, then we could end up with no effective defences against them.

What is an antibiotic-resistant disease?

Nature has a habit of taking us by surprise, and in the case of antibiotic-resistant diseases, it is displaying evolution at breakneck speed. Antibiotic resistance occurs when the antibiotic drug loses its effectiveness to control or kill a bacteria due to it having developed immunity to the drug. In other words, these diseases are able to continue to multiply despite the presence of antibiotics.

Can we prevent it?

According to the World Health Organisation, antibiotic-resistant diseases are now one of the biggest global threats to health and warns that unless urgent action is taken to reduce the threat, we could soon enter a post-antibiotic era where common infections and injuries can kill. Already we see cases of resistant pneumonia, tuberculosis, blood poisoning and gonorrhoea. These relatively common infections are becoming increasingly difficult to treat and in some cases are now impossible to cure. With the ease of international travel resistant diseases are spreading across the globe with relative ease and it will take effective government action to control it.

Public Health England has recently launched a campaign called ‘Keep Antibiotics Working’ to raise awareness of the issue and is warning that in just 30 years’ time we could see antibiotic resistant diseases killing more people than cancer and diabetes combined.   

What can you do?

As individuals, we can each play our part in slowing the spread of antibiotic-resistant diseases.  To help prevent the spread you should;

  • Only use antibiotics that are prescribed by a healthcare professional such as your GP.
  • With the pressures of work, you may be tempted to demand antibiotics from your doctor to get over an illness quickly. Don’t. Coughs, earache and sore throats, will get better by themselves, and the overuse of antibiotics to treat such conditions means that the life-saving drugs may no longer work when they’re really needed. Your immune system can handle most common illnesses on its own, and most people don’t realise that antibiotics have no effect on viral infections.
  • You can prevent the spread of harmful infections by implementing good hygiene practices. Wash your hands thoroughly and regularly, practice safe sex, avoid contact with sick people if possible and ensure that your vaccinations are kept up to date.

If you look back at history, you will find many instances of pandemics that have devastated entire civilisations and claimed millions of lives. From the Bubonic Plague to Spanish Flu, diseases that are currently treated with antibiotics could return with devastating effect.

A Modern Warning

In Madagascar, the populace is currently struggling to deal with an outbreak of the Pneumonic plague caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. (Otherwise known as the Black Death). According to experts on the ground, the disease has spread at an alarming rate. Since the first cases were reported in August, 100 people have died, and over 1000 people have been infected.

Fortunately, the plague can be treated with powerful antibiotics but in 2007 scientists were alarmed by the discovery of a strain of the disease taken from a teenage boy in Madagascar that was resistant to eight antibiotics that are normally used to treat the infection.

The warning signs are there. But we can take steps to help to prevent this. Next time you are feeling under the weather take a step back and think if you really need antibiotics from your GP.