Too much of a good thing

Are we about to return to the perils of a pre-antibiotic era?
Are we about to return to the perils of a pre-antibiotic era? 

Remember the last time your child came running up to you with a cut or graze? Can you imagine that cut being infected so seriously with bacteria that it couldn’t be treated? During the era before antibiotics were discovered, Staphylococcus aureus was fatal in 80 percent of infected wounds, and there was nothing much that could be done to treat it.

The first antibiotics were prescribed in the 1940’s, and since then, the rate of bacterial infection as a cause of death fell. By the 1950s, whilst  antibiotics were still new, there was evidence of the emergence of resistance. However, in the 1950s and 1960s, resistant bacterial strains seemed to matter very little, as there was always a new antibiotic being developed to combat them.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently identified antibiotic resistance as one of the three greatest current threats to human health. Are we poised to return full-circle to a pre-antibiotic era? WHO has warned that a global health emergency may result without the antibiotics needed to fight multi-drug resistant bacteria if strong measures are not taken worldwide to combat the spread of resistance.

Resistance develops when certain bacteria mutate to protect themselves from an antibiotic and are no longer sensitive to it. These bacteria are labelled ‘Superbugs’, and are very hard to treat. Infections caused by them may last longer, and cause more complications.

Medicines Australia reported last year that 7000 Australians die each year from drug-resistant bacteria, such as Golden Staph infections – that amounts to around 20 Australians daily.

Are we poised to return full-circle to a pre-antibiotic era?

Antibiotic Awareness week is a global initiative to highlight the spread of these ‘superbugs’ as a growing public health risk. In Australia, this initiative is supported by many medical and health organisations, including NPSMedicinewise.

According to NPSMedicinewise, Australia has one of the world’s highest rates of antibiotic use, with around 19 million prescriptions written annually.

Dr Philippa Binns, clinical adviser and GP at NPSMedicinewise, states the purpose of the campaign is “to promote what a precious resource antibiotics are, and to encourage people to become antibiotic resistance fighters.”

 “Every time we take antibiotics unnecessarily or incorrectly we contribute to the spread of superbugs in the community,” Dr Binns explains. “The public will be affected because where once upon a time, simple infections could be treated, they can now become life threatening again like they did early last century.”


The main point to remember is that antibiotics kill bacteria, not viruses. Most upper respiratory tract infections, like the common cold, are caused by viral infections.

“Don’t expect an antibiotic prescription from your GP if you have a viral infection. Most of these run their course over 3-5 days, sometimes a week,” emphasizes Dr Binns. In these cases, the best prescription is symptom management. “Take plenty of rest, fluids, and Paracetamol for aches and pains,’’ she adds.

If you are generally healthy and well, a cold will usually get better without treatment, because your body’s immune system can overcome the infection.

However, you may have symptoms of a respiratory tract infection caused by bacteria. Or your GP may feel that you are at risk of complications of a cold or flu, or a secondary bacterial infection. In these cases, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics. The following guidelines will help you take them effectively, and ward off infection.

Take your antibiotics according to the instructions. Retail pharmacist Susan Paisley explains that you should “Be aware that some antibiotics need to be taken with food, while others need to be taken on an empty stomach, so half an hour to an hour before food. With certain antibiotics, you may need to avoid alcohol or other things.”

Complete the course. Paisley explains that even though you may start feeling better after a few days of taking the antibiotic, all the bacteria may not have been killed, so completing the course is vital.

Don’t share antibiotics with others in the family. They may have a different infection and your antibiotic may not necessarily treat that infection.

Take simple steps to avoid infections and prevent them from spreading. If you have an infectious disease, cough, sneeze, or blow your nose into tissues, and throw them away. Wash hands regularly, and avoid sharing cups or glasses.

Check out the NPS Medicinewise website and Facebook page for more information about antibiotic resistance, and how you can actively participate. They also have a free app which you can download, called “Antibiotics Reminder”, where you can set alerts to remind yourself  to take your medicine, and track your doses.

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