Health officials in the UK are warning people not to take antibiotics unless they need them, as drug-resistant infections continue to become more common.
A report by Public Health England (PHE) predicts that more than three million surgeries and cancer treatments could become life-threatening as antibiotic resistance continues to rise. Without antibiotics that work, infections related to surgeries, such as hip replacements and caesarean sections, could double.
Antibiotic resistance is particularly worrying for cancer patients with low immune systems, who rely on antibiotics to treat them. Although antibiotics are essential in treating serious bacterial infections, they’re commonly being used to treat illnesses including coughs, earaches and sore throats – which typically get better on their own. PHE says regular antibiotic use encourages harmful bacteria to become resistant, meaning the antibiotics don’t work as they’re meant to over time.
According to the report, bloodstream infections have increased, with antibiotic-resistant bloodstream infections rising by 35 per cent between 2013 and 2017. Despite drug-resistant infections growing, 38 per cent of people in the United Kingdom still visit a GP to get antibiotics for coughs, throat, ear, sinus and chest infections. PHE launched the Keep Antibiotics Working campaign to remind the public about the health risks associated with antibiotic resistance and to encourage them to talk to their GPs and health professionals about when they actually need to be using antibiotics.
Researchers say while antibiotics remain an essential part of modern medicine, they need to be preserved to keep people safe from infection when they are at their most vulnerable.
“It’s concerning that, in the not too distant future, we may see more cancer patients, mothers who’ve had caesareans and patients who’ve had other surgery facing life-threatening situations if antibiotics fail to ward off infections,” Public Health England Medical Director Paul Cosford warned in a statement. “Taking antibiotics just in case may seem like a harmless act, but it can have grave consequences for you and your family’s health in the future.”
England’s Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies also warned that medicine could return to “the dark ages” if action isn’t taken.
“The evidence is clear that without swift action to reduce infections, we are at risk of putting medicine back in the dark ages – to an age where common procedures we take for granted could become too dangerous to perform, and treatable conditions become life-threatening,” Davies explained.
Her calls were echoed by doctors at the Royal College of GPs, who said health professionals are already reducing antibiotic prescription, but that they come under pressure from patients to prescribe them.
“We need to get to a stage where antibiotics are not seen as a ‘catch all’ for every illness or a ‘just in case’ backup option – and patients need to understand that if their doctor doesn’t prescribe antibiotics it’s because they genuinely believe they are not the most appropriate course of treatment,” Chair of the Royal College of GPs Helen Stokes-Lampard said.
The latest warning comes after recent research published in the Science Translational Medicine Journal found a worrying superbug known as vancomycin-resistant enterococcus (VRE) is growing increasingly resistant to the standard disinfectants. Alcohol-based disinfectants and hand rubs are a key way many hospitals control infections all around the world, although the research found the superbug is growing resistant to isopropyl and ethyl – a common ingredient found in many rubs.