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What can we all do to tackle antibiotic resistance?

Welcome to the Oxford Journals guide to antibiotic resistance. The 13th – 19th November marks World Antibiotic Awareness Week, an annual international campaign set up by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to combat the spread of antibiotic resistance, and raise awareness of the potential consequences. Even better, it’s not just scientists, politicians, and medical professionals who can work towards a solution – you can be part of it too. Let’s start with the basics:

What exactly is an antibiotic?

Antibiotics are the medicines used to prevent and treat bacterial infections. They do not treat colds, flu, or other viral infections. And they aren’t just used on humans; some animals are also regularly given antibiotics to make them grow faster, or help them survive stressful, crowded, or unsanitary conditions.

What is antibiotic resistance?

Bacteria can change and evolve in response to the medicines we use, eventually becoming resistant to the effects of antibiotics. It is always the bacteria that become resistant, not the person or animal. The antibiotic-resistant bacteria are then spread via food, the environment – contaminated water, for example – or by direct contact with infected humans or animals.

“Antibiotics do not treat viral infections, like colds and flu.” GIF used with permission from the WHO.

So what? Why is antibiotic resistance a problem?

When bacteria become resistant to our medicines, the symptoms they cause become harder to treat. If you get an infection from antibiotic-resistant bacteria it can incur higher medical costs, lead to prolonged stints in hospital, and carries higher risk of permanent consequences, including mortality.

Now you have an overview of the problem, the next step is moving towards a solution. There are many facets to the problem, and there is no magical cure. For starters, we asked some of our journal editors to explain what scientific research is doing to help in the fight against antibiotic resistance:

“By now many, if not most, people will be aware of the threat antimicrobial resistance poses to global health. The Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy is dedicated to playing its part and currently devotes much of its content to this problem and to potential solutions. The journal particularly focuses on how to gain a better understanding of what is needed to optimize the use of the antimicrobial agents we already have, on new approaches to overcoming resistance, and on new drugs that are in development.”
— Peter Donnelly, Editor-in-Chief, Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy

“Antibiotic resistance is a growing problem worldwide, more particularly in developing countries that are very popular destinations for travellers. As a consequence multi drug resistant (MDR) bacteria may be imported by travellers in Western countries. The spectrum of infection is wide from asymptomatic carriage to life-threatening infections. Urinary tract infections and pyoderma are leading causes of consultation in travellers returning from tropical countries, and may be due to MDR bacteria, respectively Enterobacteriacae and Staphylococcus aureus. These MDR bacteria may even be further transmitted in the community and the hospital setting.”
— Eric Caumes, Editor-in-Chief, Journal of Travel Medicine

“The rise of #AntibioticResistance is leading to untreatable infections which can affect anyone, of any age, in any country.” GIF used with permission from the WHO.

“AMR will be a very persistent problem. Pathogenic bacteria will always find a way to outsmart us and will develop resistance to every new drug we’ll create.  This sounds like bad news and in a sense it is. But we can tackle the problem by taking several measures, including good stewardship, fast and reliable diagnostics, but above all by continuously applying novel concepts in drug development. We have too long been satisfied by directly mining nature and using chemical modification of existing antibiotics. We now need to be more creative and apply novel methods in screening and eliciting production of natural products, but also by using new scaffolds and templates for chemical- and bioengineering, new administration methods and other ways of regulating their bioactivity. In this way, we can keep on refuelling the pipeline of novel lead molecules to be taken into drug development programs, and be safe in the future against ever occurring highly resistant pathogenic strains.”
— Oscar Kuipers, Editor, FEMS Microbiology Reviews

It’s excellent to know that key research is already taking place, but there are things that you can do right now to help improve the outlook for the future:

  • Prevent infections – wash your hands regularly, avoid other people when you’re unwell, and make sure all your vaccinations are up to date.
  • Only use antibiotics when they have been prescribed for you by a certified health professional – and trust their judgement when they don’t give you any.
  • Always take the full prescription – even if you start to feel better after a few days, the bacteria are still in your body, and stopping halfway through will give them time to adapt, evolve, and become resistant to that particular medicine.
  • Never share antibiotics with anyone else, or use leftover antibiotics.

Featured image credit: Featured image credit: Biofilm of antibiotic resistant bacteria by Kateryna Kon. © via Shutterstock.

Recent Comments

  1. Paul Venter

    You take a very narrow view of the drugs/chemicals which act as antibiotics. Any substance or process which leads to microbe mortality leaves surviving microbes – if these are capable of reproducing then resistance is automatically conferred on the offspring. Chemicals which can do this are disinfectants, soaps, toothpaste, deodorants, detergents….an almost endless list of substances in daily use to which we give little attention…

  2. Chiara Maqueda

    There are other avenues to consider, as well, not least of which are the international patent laws. At present, drug companies have an overriding motivation to sell as much of their newly developed drugs, to as many people/animals and places as they can in the “window” of patent monopoly. One approach may be to extend the life of patents, but to suspend use/sale every x years for y years so as to minimise development resistance; with other drugs taking their place in these alternate years.

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