What is antibiotic resistance?

Pharmaceutical Manager at Bupa UK
20 November 2017

Antibiotic resistance (AR) is one of world’s most pressing public health problems. It occurs all around the world and means that doctors are increasingly unable to treat infectious diseases – because antibiotics are no longer working. It means that the infections antibiotics treat have become resistant to them. Furthermore, this has a huge impact on other advances in healthcare and medicine. Without effective antibiotics many routine treatments will become more dangerous. And, as well as this, the setting of broken bones, basic operations, chemotherapy and even animal health all rely on access to effective antibiotics.

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Why does antibiotic resistance matter to me?

You may have seen news reports relating to the problem of MRSA also known as methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus. This is a well-known example of a bacteria which has become resistant to the main antibiotics used to treat it, and unfortunately it’s not the only one. England’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies recognises this growing threat and has stated that if our antibiotics lose their ability to work it would be “the end of modern medicine.”

How does antibiotic resistance happen?

AR is down to the large numbers of bacteria which can live within the body and how quickly they multiply. Out of the millions of bacteria, one or two may be slightly resistant to antibiotics because of genetic mutation (changes which sometimes occur in DNA). If the resistant bacteria are not entirely killed by a course of antibiotics, they will survive and grow. This growth of the resistant bacteria may cause the infection to come back and they may also allow resistance to be passed on to other bacteria. If this situation repeats in different people and over many years, it eventually results in total resistance.

Some examples of how we can cause AR in day-to-day life are:

  • not finishing the full course of antibiotics
  • taking antibiotics when they are not needed, such as for a viral infection
  • borrowing antibiotics from others to treat a similar illness without confirming with a doctor
  • poor hygiene or hand washing in high risk places like hospitals

If AR continues we could lose our current antibiotic options altogether. This is dangerous because according to a recent report from the World Health Organization (WHO), not enough new antibiotics are being developed to replace the ones that no longer work.

What is being done about antibiotic resistance?

The WHO has released a Global Plan for AR with the aim of reducing infections by improving hygiene, getting rid of waste safely and through infection prevention measures. The practical ways we can personally reduce AR and help protect our communities and families include:

  • using correct hand hygiene techniques and teaching these to others, so washing your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water.
  • staying home when sick so you don’t infect other people
  • sneezing or coughing into a tissue and then putting it in the bin
  • teaching children about good hygiene habits

Doing these will help to reduce the spread of infection which in turn reduces the amount of illnesses which could become resistant.

Bupa too is taking action. Members of The Global Chief Medical Officers’ (CMO) Network have signed a pledge on antibiotic resistance that urges companies to support the appropriate use of antibiotics, as resistance is on the rise. The CMO Network is a group of some of the world’s largest employers, led by Bupa.

What else can I do to help?

Understanding what antibiotic resistance is is a key first step, and spreading the word to your family and friends so that they know about it too. You can also sign up to be an antibiotic guardian. This campaign by Public Health England has a list of simple pledges that you can sign up to in order to make sure our precious antibiotics do not become unusable.

In summary…

AR is a growing threat which affects everyone. It’s considered important enough that the WHO have a global plan to fight it. We can personally help to reduce the threat by using antibiotics correctly and minimising the spread of any illnesses we get. If we all work together we can make a difference.

Even healthy people become unhealthy sometimes. Health insurance can help you get prompt access to the treatment and support you need to help you get back on the road to recovery. Learn more with our useful guide to understanding health insurance.

Justin Hayde-West
Pharmaceutical Manager at Bupa UK

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