This week (13-19 November) is World Antibiotic Awareness Week. You may have seen posters on bus stops, or heard adverts on the radio telling you to use antibiotics properly and to listen to your doctor. But how much of a problem is antibiotic resistance (or drug resistant infections)?
It might seem like a distant problem that affects people elsewhere on the globe. To some extent that is true, and the situation is much worse in some parts of the world, but bacteria don’t respect international borders and resistant strains rapidly spread through international travel and via food distribution networks. It may not be just a suntan you bring home from your next overseas holiday.
According to the World Health Organisation, antibiotic resistance is as big a threat to global health as climate change. Currently, 700,000 people die every year from drug resistant infections, but that number is predicted to rise to 10 million a year by 2050 if we don’t do anything about the threat. In Europe, up to 390,000 people could die every year; that’s nearly 50 people every hour of every day. Fewer people currently die of cancer and diabetes combined.
Many of us have taken antibiotics and they generally work well, so it is not easy to imagine a time when they might not be effective. Bacteria are becoming more widely resistant, and cases of infection that are resistant to all antibiotics are becoming much more common. Many patients are now dying of untreatable infections. It also makes no difference if you’ve never taken an antibiotic; you’re still as likely as most other people to be infected by drug resistant bacteria.
Antibiotics underpin all of modern medicine. We don’t just take them to treat infections as they are used to prevent infection in many situations like during hip replacements, cancer therapy or caesarean sections. If we loose antibiotics, things like this will become too risky to perform. Minor infections could become life threatening. It will change the way we live and work. Imagine how you’d feel going for a bike ride or spending time in the garden if a graze or scratch could result in a fatal infection?
With such a huge problem, there is often a perception that the only way to solve it is through work by scientists in big companies, or by government action. Some of the biggest impact is going to be achieved in this way and antibiotic resistance has been discussed at G20 meetings and the World Economic Forum. There has been good progress at international government levels, but we all have a part to play.