A simple, singalong message that hits the right note with the public is how I would describe Public Health England’s new advertising campaign, ‘Keep Antibiotics Working’, which launched this week.
But that is not how others see it. Because the ad has earned the ire of some groups who believe it is placing the onus on patients for demanding antibiotics when, they say, it is doctors who caused the problem of antibiotic resistance by dispensing too many of them in the first place.
While elements of the media love a good bun fight, the problem of antibiotic resistance is simply too great to be countered by anything but a united approach. Playing the blame game will not reduce the staggering numbers of people already dying of antibiotic resistance (conservatively estimated to be 700,000 per year globally). Nor will it negate the nightmare vision of a future where previously treatable conditions become rampant again and routine operations will be cancelled for fear of infection.
The World Health Organization has warned that antibiotic resistance is the biggest health problem facing humankind and of more concern than cancer.
Which is why it will it take a worldwide response in order to resolve it.
Like it or not, that process begins with doctor and patient. Prescribers are more informed than ever before about antibiotics and know that such medication is only to be used to kill or control serious bacterial infections. This, however, can be in the face of increased pressure from a self-diagnosing, internet-symptom-searching population.
While I have sympathy with the pressured worker who feels they cannot take time off to get better, demanding antibiotics is simply not on. And neither is using old antibiotics at the back of a medicine cabinet or antibiotics purchased from dubious sources.
GPs and other prescribers also recommend a course of antibiotics for a reason. So patients should also stay the distance and complete that course (and that way they won’t be tempted to store antibiotics for future usage).
Hospital infection control teams have arrested the rise of the superbug by improving their cleanliness, but this can never ever be an area for complacency.
Along with Public Health England’s campaign, the world’s only dedicated antibiotic resistance charity Antibiotic Research UK (ANTRUK), has been running a drive fronted by singer, Cheryl Baker. To her great credit she has reminded us about the case of her mother-in-law whom she lost, not to the breast cancer she was being treated for, but from the hospital acquired infection Clostridium difficile. As Cheryl so ably told us: ‘The emphasis has to be on cleanliness. Budgets cannot be more important than patients.’
Developing new medicines
Certainly the pharmaceutical industry also needs to plough more money into research. But let’s be realistic. Market forces dictate and there simply isn’t enough money to be made in finding new antibiotics.
That means politicians must do more to incentivise the companies. Again, I think the public can play a part and ANTRUK’s fundraising activities around World Antibiotics Week (13-19 November) not only raises money and awareness but should also alert drugs companies and leaders that people do not want to return to the dark ages of medicine where even the simplest infected scratch could prove fatal.
To ensure this does not happen ANTRUK has published a five-point action plan asking all stakeholders to work together to solve the resistance problem. It is only when everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet that we will be able to reverse the inexorable rise in resistant UTIs, blood infections, sepsis and pneumonia.
With terms such as ‘antibiotic armageddon’ being bandied about in the media, conferences of world leaders being held and public advertising campaigns launched, at least there is now a noise about antibiotic resistance.
But it is going to take more than words and certainly more than name-calling if we want to protect the health of our generation and those to come. A collective, collaborative, concerted drive from drugs companies, politicians, patients and health professionals will be required to curb this particular crisis.
- Dr Zahid Chauhan is a GP in Greater Manchester and campaigner for health equality. Learn more about his work here.
- ANTRUK is the world’s only charity dedicated to antibiotic awareness. Find more information here.
Dr Chauhan and ANTRUK have produced a film called Trouble is Brewing which you can watch below: