Life

Overuse means antibiotics could stop working

In Northern Ireland more than anywhere else in the UK we take antibiotics for granted but the danger of relying too much on these lifesaving medicines is that is we could be rendering them useless, writes Dr Michael McKenna

Overuse is causing some antibiotics to stop working

IMAGINE a world where people still died from a chest or a urinary infection. If I were to tell you today that we’re moving closer to that situation and taking a step back in time, many of you would think I was just telling you this to scare you. However, that possibility is closer than we think.

As a GP with more than 20 years’ experience, I see far too many people who think that a pill cures every ill and that antibiotics are the answer to common colds and coughs.

Unfortunately, this is leading us to over-use and misuse antibiotics and causing the rise of something called antibiotic resistance.

This means that antibiotics won’t kill bacteria and become less and less effective. The more we use antibiotics, the greater the chance bacteria will become resistant to them.

Why should we be concerned about this?

Imagine if you had a urinary tract or kidney infection. Generally this type of infection is easily and commonly treated with antibiotics. However, if almost of half of us have bacteria which have developed resistance to these antibiotics, taking them won’t necessarily cure the infection.

If this continues, we could soon find ourselves living in a world where routine surgery could become high risk procedures, and where chemotherapy treatment and hip replacement surgery may have to stop altogether.

So what can we do?

I am passionate about helping my patients use antibiotics correctly. I believe our own immune system should be allowed to deal with the simple, self-limiting infections, saving antibiotics for more appropriate infections.

My advice to patients when they think I’m being awkward or plotting to stop them getting antibiotics is:

:: Don’t ask your doctor for antibiotics to treat a cold. Most colds and most coughs and sore throats are caused by viruses. Generally, these will get better in time and with self-care or you can ask your community pharmacist for something to help with the symptoms. Antibiotics do not work against infections caused by viruses.

:: When you’ve been given antibiotics, take them correctly and finish the course as directed by your doctor.

:: Don’t skip doses of antibiotics, or stop taking them because you feel better.

:: Don’t save some for later or share them with a friend or family member.

These are all small ways in which we can all play a part to keep antibiotics working effectively.

If after reading this, you think I’m unnecessarily scaremongering, I’ll leave you with some hard facts.

:: Some previously low-grade hospital bugs are now resistant to all antibiotics.

:: A new drug-resistant strain of tuberculosis is emerging globally and causing concern.

:: No new types of antibiotics have been discovered for 25 years and some strains of bacteria are now unharmed by nearly all the drugs designed to kill them, making infections by these bacteria almost untreatable.

:: Dr Michael McKenna is a Belfast GP.

Key figures:

Almost two million antibiotic prescriptions were issued in Northern Ireland in 2014 – more than one per head of population, the highest rate of any region of the UK

:: No new major antibiotic has been developed in the last 25 years

:: €1.5 billion is the annual EU-wide cost of healthcare expenses and lost productivity due to antibiotic-resistant bacteria

:: 25,000 – The number of people dying each year in Europe from antibiotic-resistant infections, more than are killed in traffic accidents

:: Today is European Antibiotics Awareness Day.

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