Urgent global action needed on the overuse of antibiotics

Wednesday 18 November 

As a result of increasing levels of antimicrobial resistance, antibiotics and other  antimicrobial1 medicines are becoming ineffective, and health workers and the public are  urged to unite to take action.  

Last year, antimicrobial resistance was named as one of the top 10 threats to global health  by the World Health Organization. It has been estimated that by 2050 10 million people  could die from infections caused by antimicrobial-resistant microorganisms each year if we  do not act now. 

The Health Quality & Safety Commission is one of many organisations nationally and  internationally raising awareness about antimicrobial resistance and highlighting the critical  importance of using antimicrobials with care, in World Antimicrobial Awareness Week. 

Doctor Sally Roberts says antimicrobial resistance occurs when bacteria, viruses, fungi, and  parasites change over time and no longer respond to medicines used to prevent or treat  infection caused by these microorganisms. This makes common infections harder to treat  and leads to longer hospital stays, higher medical costs and increased likelihood of death. 

“World Antimicrobial Awareness Week highlights the need to use antimicrobials carefully.” 

She says many factors have accelerated the threat of antimicrobial resistance worldwide – including overuse and misuse of medicines in humans, livestock and agriculture, as well as  poor access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene. 

Doctor Roberts says it is vital that any reduction in the use of antibiotics does not increase  health inequities, and this is a big focus for the Commission. 

“A recent project supported by the Commission and PHARMAC which aimed to decrease  unnecessary antibiotics prescriptions was carefully targeted to ensure groups such as Māori  and Pacific communities, were not negatively impacted.” 

To support the week, health care workers in Aotearoa are being encouraged to think  carefully before prescribing antimicrobials, including discussing with consumers when  antibiotics are needed, and when they won’t make a difference. For example, colds and flu  can’t be fixed by antibiotics because they’re caused by viruses, not bacteria and antibiotics  also don’t help most ear infections get better any faster. 

The Choosing Wisely campaign has a number of resources for consumers with information  about when antibiotics may not be needed, and alternatives for treating common illnesses. 

World Antimicrobial Awareness Week runs from today until 24 November. For further  information, visit the WHO website.  

About antimicrobial resistance 

  • The World Health Organization has declared that AMR is one of the top 10 global public health threats facing humanity.
  • Misuse and overuse of antimicrobials are the main drivers in the development of drug-resistant pathogens.
  • Lack of clean water and sanitation and inadequate infection prevention and control promotes the spread of microbes, some of which can be resistant to antimicrobial treatment.
  • The cost of AMR to the economy is significant. In addition to death and disability, prolonged illness results in longer hospital stays, the need for more expensive medicines and financial challenges for those impacted.
  • Without effective antimicrobials, the ability of modern medicine to treat infections, including during major surgery and cancer chemotherapy, would be at increased risk.

What are antimicrobials? 

Antimicrobials – including antibiotics, antivirals, antifungals and antiparasitics – are  medicines used to prevent and treat infections in humans, animals and plants. 

What is antimicrobial resistance?

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) occurs when bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites change  over time and no longer respond to medicines making infections harder to treat and  increasing the risk of disease spread, severe illness and death. 

As a result of drug resistance, antibiotics and other antimicrobial medicines become  ineffective and infections become increasingly difficult or impossible to treat.

Why is antimicrobial resistance a global concern? 

The emergence and spread of drug-resistant pathogens that have acquired new resistance  mechanisms, leading to antimicrobial resistance, continues to threaten our ability to treat  common infections. Especially alarming is the rapid global spread of multi- and pan-resistant  bacteria (also known as “superbugs”) that cause infections that are not treatable with  existing antimicrobial medicines such as antibiotics. 

Without effective tools for the prevention and adequate treatment of drug-resistant infections  and improved access to existing and new quality-assured antimicrobials, the number of  people for whom treatment is failing or who die of infections will increase. Medical  procedures, such as surgery, including caesarean sections or hip replacements, cancer  chemotherapy, and organ transplantation, will become riskier. 

What accelerates the emergence and spread of antimicrobial resistance?

AMR occurs naturally over time, usually through genetic changes. Antimicrobial resistant  organisms are found in people, animals, food, plants and the environment (in water, soil and  air). They can spread from person to person or between people and animals, including from  food of animal origin. The main drivers of antimicrobial resistance include the misuse and  overuse of antimicrobials; lack of access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) for  both humans and animals; poor infection and disease prevention and control in health-care  facilities and farms; poor access to quality, affordable medicines, vaccines and diagnostics;  lack of awareness and knowledge; and lack of enforcement of legislation. 

1 Antimicrobials is a term that encompasses antibiotics, antivirals, antifungals and antiparasitic
medicines used to prevent or treat infections in humans, animals or plants.