How bugs can become resistant to antibiotics and spark a major health issue

Bugs becoming resistant to drugs like antibiotics is still a major health issue, as Lisa Salmon discovers. Here is what you need to know and how you can help.

Picture: PA.

Antibiotic resistance has taken a back seat recently because of the more obvious threat of Covid.

But superbugs becoming resistant to drugs isn’t something the world can afford to forget, as studies have predicted that in around 30 years antibiotic resistance will kill more people worldwide than cancer.

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So, to remind us of the looming threat, this year’s World Antimicrobial Awareness Week (WAAW), running now, has a theme of ‘Spread Awareness, Stop Resistance’.

The World Health Organisation which helps organise WAAW, says antimicrobial resistance (AMR) occurs when bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites gradually change and stop responding to antimicrobial medicines including antibiotics, antivirals and antifungals. This makes infections harder to treat and increases the risk of diseases spreading, causing severe illness and even death. Indeed, the WHO estimates that by 2050, deaths attributable to AMR globally could be as high as 10 million a year.

“Bacteria are our ancient enemies, but we no longer have the upper hand,” warns cell biologist Professor Jennifer Rohn, head of the Centre for Urological Biology at University College London (UCL) and a member of the new five-year programme, Beyond Antibiotics, to develop new technology to improve the diagnosis and treatment of bacterial infections.

“Antimicrobial resistance has been a pressing and global problem for many decades,” she says.

“Already about 700,000 people a year die from antibiotic-resistant infections, and this is set to accelerate in a way that might send us back into the medical dark age if not addressed.”

Here are some key facts about AMR and how you can help prevent it…

1. It’s a huge threat. A 2019 UN and international agencies report on AMR stressed it was “one of the greatest threats we face as a global community.”

2. Antibiotic misuse and overuse is the main cause. The WHO says the misuse and overuse of antimicrobials in humans, animals and plants is the main reason for increasing numbers of drug-resistant infections.

“Poor diagnostic and prescribing practices and patients not following their treatment also contribute,” it says.

3. Antibiotic resistance is high for common infections. High rates of resistance against antibiotics often used for common bacterial infections including urinary tract infections, sepsis, sexually transmitted infections, and some forms of diarrhoea, have been observed, say the WHO, which warns this indicates that we are running out of effective antibiotics.

4. New antimicrobials aren’t being developed.

The WHO says “the clinical pipeline of new antimicrobials is dry,” pointing out that the few developed in recent years have brought little benefit over existing treatments, and very few target the most critical resistant bacteria.

The charitable health foundation Wellcome says no new classes of antibiotics have been discovered since the 1980s, as discovering and developing genuinely new antibiotics is time-consuming and expensive.

5. Covid restrictions helped reduce resistant infections. Dr Diane Ashiru-Oredope, lead pharmacist in the antimicrobial resistance division at the UK Health Security Agency points out that many of the Covid-prevention measures we’ve all become used to, including physical distancing and enhanced infection prevention and control, reduced the number of resistant infections.

“These will rise if we don’t continue to take effective action,” she warns.

“Thorough and regular hand washing, catching coughs and sneezes, and good cleaning at home, in the office and in healthcare settings remain the most effective ways of reducing the risk of infections in the first place, before they can become resistant.”