More than half of the world seriously misunderstands how antibiotic drugs work, according to a new World Health Organisation (WHO) survey.
The confusion is far from harmless: Inaccurate beliefs about antibiotics can make the growing crisis of antibiotic resistance worse.
Medical experts have sounded the alarm for years about antibiotic resistance, or when infectious bacteria become resistant to the life-saving drugs we use to fight them off.
The problem of drug resistance
It’s a simple story of evolution.
Each time an antibiotic drug is used to kill invading bacteria, a few may survive with traits that allow them to defeat the drugs. As these survivors pass on these traits to future generations of bacteria, the antibiotic becomes less effective.
We’ve used antibiotics regularly — too often, in many ways — since the 1940s, and the effects have grown worrisomely apparent.
It’s almost impossible to overstate how important antibiotics are to our modern way of life. As my colleague Julia Calderone noted earlier this year, the first person to have their life saved with penicillin was a British police officer who had scratched his face with a thorn. The scratch got infected, causing pus to ooze from his scalp. It spread to an eye, which doctors had to remove. Doctors used penicillin to wipe out that infection, but today many bacteria cannot be treated with penicillin anymore because we’ve over-used that drug.
In a world without effective antibiotics, a simple scratch can be deadly.
Before the advent of antibiotics, 30% of children used to die of pneumonia. One in 100 women used to die of infections acquired during childbirth, even in the cleanest maternity wards. And modern surgery is almost impossible without drugs that can kill an infection acquired by a few microscopic bacteria slipping into an incision.
Doctors estimate that by 2050, antibiotic-resistant infections will kill more people than cancer.
What the world doesn’t know about antibiotics
For the latest WHO study, researchers surveyed 10,000 residents in 12 countries — two nations each for six major world regions.
Here are a few of the poll’s disturbing findings:
- Three-quarters of respondents think that “antibiotic resistance” means that humans are becoming resistant, not bacteria. That matters because understanding how to deal with the problem depends on comprehension of what causes it in the first place: Microbes.
- Most likely because of the above misunderstanding, almost half of respondents think they are only at risk of an antibiotic-resistant infection if they take the drugs regularly. But this is not true: Anyone can acquire these infections if they encounter the microbes responsible for them, be it at a hospital or a sauna or a soccer game.
- A full 64% of people believe antibiotics can treat a cold or a flu, but this isn’t the case. Antibiotic drugs only affect bacteria, not viruses. Using them more than is needed is what creates the resistant bacteria in the first place.
- And another 64% of people think medical experts can solve the problem before it gets too serious. As Maryn McKenna, author of “Superbug: the fatal menace of MRSA,” writes on her blog at National Geographic: “Would that were so” — but it’s not something we can count on.
Whatever you might believe, there are clear things that can be done to slow the spread of drug-resistant bacteria.
Only use antibiotics when they are necessary. And never stop a course of antibiotics partway through, since you may feel better — the point of the drugs is to kill the bacteria that cause the illness and if you don’t wipe them all out, chances are the weakened survivors will have some resistance. Experts also agree that farmers need to give livestock fewer antibiotics, something 73% of respondents (happily) agreed with.
McKenna writes this is all “discouraging,” since “large numbers of people still don’t understand how antibiotic resistance arises, and are doing things that make it worse.”
WHO Director-General Margaret Chan was even more explicit in a telebriefing with reporters, according to Reuters.
“The rise of antibiotic resistance is a global health crisis,” Chan said, which could lead to “the end of modern medicine as we know it.”
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