The battle against antibiotic resistance

Posted on 6 November 2018

The widespread – and, in some cases, unnecessary – use of antibiotics is leading to dangerous levels of antibiotic resistance. How does that happen, and is there anything you can do to prevent it?

Antibiotic resistance is a worldwide health problem, as inappropriate use of disease-fighting antibiotics causes harmful bacteria to adapt, and develop into ‘superbugs’ that cannot be treated by those antibiotics.

Dr Amima Sundas, a physician at Mediclinic Newcastle, points to the example of Augmentin, a widely-used first-line antibiotic. “It is used as a remedy for many respiratory, urinary tract and skin infections,” she says. “However, an antibiotic resistance to Augmentin has emerged so widely that the normal dosage is now ineffective, and we can’t use it everywhere for first-line treatment.”

Antibiotics vs bacteria

Antibiotic resistance emerged shortly after the very first commercialised antibiotic was discovered in 1928 when Alexander Fleming identified penicillin. Immediately, the same bacteria that penicillin killed started changing in order to defeat the antibiotic. Over time, many other harmful bacteria have developed that ability to defeat the very same antibiotics that are designed to kill them.

According to the World Health Organization, antibiotic resistance is rising to dangerously high levels in all parts of the world. “New resistance mechanisms are emerging and spreading globally, threatening our ability to treat common infectious diseases,” warns WHO. “A growing list of infections – such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, blood poisoning, gonorrhoea, and foodborne diseases – are becoming harder, and sometimes impossible, to treat as antibiotics become less effective.”

A short history of antibiotics

Causes of antibiotic resistance

One of the leading causes of antibiotic resistance is the misuse and overuse of antibiotics, along with poor infection prevention and control. A survey published in the South African Medical Journal in 2018 found that 97.1% of prescribing doctors believe antibiotics are overused in South Africa, while 66.5% felt pressure from patients to prescribe antibiotics.

“Patients need to be aware that not all coughs or abdominal pain are bacterial infections,” says Dr Sundas. “There may be some other reason for that illness. It could be a viral infection, and they might not even need antibiotics. Patients should never insist on being given antibiotics to remedy every little ache or pain, and they must not use antibiotics unnecessarily.”

In South Africa, antibiotics are available only on prescription from a doctor – which is precisely why patients should never share or use leftover antibiotics. When prescribing antibiotics, doctors should take a number of factors into consideration. These include the patient’s history with antibiotics, the actual cause of the disease, and the various patterns in the local community.

As a patient, it’s up to you to make sure you’re taking the correct dosage, following the appropriate antibiotic treatment… and not insisting on antibiotics as the cure-all for every cough, sniffle, ache or pain.

INFOGRAPHIC: How bacteria develop antibiotic resistance

Published in Expert Articles

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.

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