The super drug for superbugs is losing its effectiveness as inappropriate prescriptions for antibiotics continue to pile up.

Antibiotic resistance may be deadly – and, if left uncurbed, it is likely to kill more people than cancer and diabetes combined by the time we reach 2050. Each year, an estimated 5,000 people in the UK die because of antibiotics. For every four in 10 cases of bloodstream E. coli infections, first-choice antibiotics are no longer effective.

In view of the growing resistance of antibiotics, the National Health Services (NHS) is urging patients to rest up instead of expecting unneeded antibiotic prescriptions.

Supporting this call, the Public Health England (PHE) has initiated the first ever “Keep Antibiotics Working” television campaign, reiterating the adverse consequences of over-dependence on antibiotics.

The television commercial features animated cartoon antibiotics singing: “Every time you feel a bit under the weather, don’t always think that we can make you better.” This is a wake-up call to patients and GPs to give antibiotics its deserved break.

There is no doubt that the good old doctor’s advice resonates with the commercial: Have plenty of rest, use pain relief such as paracetamol, and drink plenty of fluids.

Possible post-antibiotic apocalypse from antibiotic resistance

Professor Paul Cosford, medical director at PHE, said, “Antibiotic resistance is not a distant threat, but is in fact one of the most dangerous global crises facing the modern world today.

“Taking antibiotics when you don’t need them puts you and your family at risk of developing infections which in turn cannot be easily treated with antibiotics. Without urgent action from all of us, common infections, minor injuries and routine operations will become much riskier.”

While antibiotics are vital in cases of sepsis, pneumonia, bacterial meningitis and other severe infections, they should not be used for every illness.

"We don't often need antibiotics for common conditions. The majority of us will get infections from time to time and will recover because of our own immunity,” elaborated Professor Cosford.

Patients should not go to their doctor “expecting an antibiotic” and a doctor will be able to tell you when an antibiotic is really necessary, said the medical director.

"The fact is if you take an antibiotic when you don't need it then you're more likely to have an infection that the antibiotics don't work for over the coming months."

England’s chief medical officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies foresees an antibiotic ‘apocalypse’ which could end modern medicine, making surgery, chemotherapy and caesareans too risky to carry out.

Describing the threatened loss of antibiotics to the world as on par with terrorism and climate change, the chief medical officer believes the public can play a critical role to help tackle the issue.

According to Professor Neil Woodford, the site's head of antimicrobial resistance, the most potent antibiotics, like carbapenems, were failing more often.

"If we go back to 2005/07, we were seeing these bacteria in maybe two to four cases per year. Last year we confirmed these resistant bacteria in over 2,000 cases,” he added.

Fear of drug-resistant superbugs: It’s estimated that at least 5,000 deaths are caused every year in the UK because antibiotics no longer work for some infections. Photo credit: PHE
Fear of drug-resistant superbugs: It’s estimated that at least 5,000 deaths are caused every year in the UK because antibiotics no longer work for some infections. Photo credit: PHE

Over-use of antibiotics will stop it from working

For common colds, flu, earache, sore throats and minor chest infections, the antibiotic regimen will not work, and patients should consult their doctors if they developed complications like a very high temperature, shortness of breath or prolonged symptoms.

In the unfortunate case of Melissa Mead, whose son William died from sepsis due to a chest infection, the doctor had failed to diagnose a chest infection and subsequently the eventual pneumonia. William had been ill for six to eight weeks, and had seen GPs six times before his death.

Speaking in favour of the campaign, Mead felt there should be “less of a taboo” about prescribing antibiotics when needed.

“I think it’s right that we don’t use antibiotics flippantly. Over-use would prevent serious infections such as sepsis responding to treatment.

“Earlier intervention with antibiotics would have saved William’s life. It was clinically evident he needed them.”

Justine Roberts, founder of Mumsnet, commented that many parents will know the anxiety and frustration that comes with worrying about a poorly child, while also fretting about missed days of school and work.

“The temptation to lobby for antibiotics can be overwhelming, so this Public Health England advice is welcome. The risks that come with the inappropriate use of antibiotics are just too great,” said Roberts.

The PHE says many illnesses get better on their own, and sees up to a fifth of antibiotic prescriptions as unnecessary. Overusing the drugs may create drug-resistant superbugs.

Health Minister Steve Brine said, “This government is firmly committed to combatting drug resistant infections and refuses to allow modern medicine to grind to a halt – simple steps can make a huge difference.

“Following on from the global “Call to Action” conference held this month, we are asking people to help so we can make sure antibiotics keep working,” added Brine. MIMS

Read more:
The antibiotic consensus: Accepting and responding to uncertainty in healthcare
Sepsis: Patients “are still dying needlessly” as NHS hospitals “fail to administer antibiotics quick enough”
Completing a course of prescribed antibiotics may not prevent antimicrobial resistance, new study shows