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What is antimicrobial resistance?

a profile picture of Maheeda Waheed
Pharmacist, Clinical Operational Improvement at Bupa UK
18 November 2021

COVID-19 and climate change are global issues that affect all of us. But another, that you might not know enough about, is antimicrobial resistance or AMR. The World Health Organization (WHO) has listed AMR as one of the urgent health challenges for the next decade.

What is AMR?

AMR is what happens when very important medicines, such as antibiotics, stop working when needed.

Antimicrobial resistance describes infections that are resistant to medicines such as:

  • antibiotics
  • antivirals
  • anti-parasitics
  • antifungals

 

Antibiotics are a major type of antimicrobial used to treat bacterial infections. Examples of antibiotics include doxycycline and penicillin-type antibiotics such as amoxicillin, and flucloxacillin.

How do antibiotics work?

Some antibiotics work by killing bacteria. They usually do this by preventing them from building their cell walls. Other antibiotics work by stopping bacteria from growing and multiplying. This gives your body’s own defences time to find and kill them.

How do bacteria become resistant to antibiotics?

Bacteria can become resistant to antibiotics. They change in response to the medicine. This means that the antibiotic doesn’t work as well and may not be able to treat an infection. Resistant bacteria may then cause further infection or spread to other people. It is much harder to treat infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

The impact of AMR

At least 700,000 people die every year because of diseases that have become resistant to medicines. Some estimates suggest that if we don’t stop AMR, it will kill 10 million people per year worldwide by the year 2050. This is more than cancer and diabetes combined.

Antimicrobials are key to protecting everyone’s health. And without them, even routine surgeries will become dangerous.

Almost every type of bacteria has become less responsive to antibiotic treatment. And while medical research is creating new antimicrobials, it can’t keep up with the pace that is needed.

What causes AMR?

The rise in AMR is caused by the over-use and misuse of these medicines.

In the UK, you can only get antibiotics on prescription from a doctor. In many countries though, people can buy antibiotics over the counter.

But antimicrobials aren’t just used as a medicine in people. Worldwide, most antimicrobials are given to animals for purposes of food production. They are also used in veterinary medicine, plant agriculture, and industrial applications.

What can we do to stop AMR?

Over 100 countries now have national action plans for AMR in place.

And there are many things that you can do too, to help keep these life-saving medicines working.

Preventing infections from developing in the first place is something we can all do by:

  • regularly washing our hands
  • avoiding contact with sick people
  • ensuring our vaccinations are up to date

 

Using antibiotics correctly

If you do need antibiotics, it’s important not to misuse them.

  • Don’t be tempted to stop taking antibiotics if you feel better. Take them as your doctor prescribes. You will need to take them for a set period of time, which could be days, weeks or even months. Your prescription will tell you how long. Finish the whole course, even if you start to feel better, to make sure all the bacteria are gone and to stop the infection returning.
  • Don’t share your antibiotics with anyone or take someone else’s. Only take antibiotics a health professional has prescribed to you. Accept when an antibiotic is not needed, for example, they can’t help a common cold.
  • Don’t take antibiotics ‘just in case’ (when you’re travelling abroad, for instance) unless your doctor has advised you to because you’re at particular risk of infection.
  • Don’t keep leftover antibiotics to use later.
  • Don’t flush them down the toilet or sink – hand any unused antibiotics to your pharmacist for disposal.

 

You can make a difference

Remember, taking antibiotics when you don't need them puts you and your family at risk. AMR is relevant to the personal health and wellbeing of everyone in the world. Antimicrobials are the only type of medicine where one person's use can affect how well the medicine works in other people. It’s so important that we all do our part to help stop AMR.

Thank you to Chris Fagg, Clinical Horizon Scanning Manager, and Caroline Wood, Head of Behavioural Insights at Bupa for their expertise.

a profile picture of Maheeda Waheed
Madeeha Waheed (she/her)
Pharmacist, Clinical Operational Improvement at Bupa UK

    • Urgent health challenges for the next decade. World Health Organisation (WHO). www.who.int, published 13 January 2020
    • Final Progress Report: Australia’s First National Antimicrobial Resistance Strategy 2015-2019. www.amr.gov.au, published 24 March 2021
    • Antibiotics. PatientPlus. patient.info, last edited 08 March 2018
    • What is the difference between antibiotic and antimicrobial resistance? World Health Organization. www.emro.who.int, accessed 17 November 2021

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