Survey highlights global challenge on antibiotic resistance

A new campaign to tackle the worldwide threat of antibiotic resistance has been launched by the World Health Organisation (WHO), but a survey shows the scale of the problem to be huge.

The multi-country survey shows people are confused about this major threat to public health and do not understand how to prevent it from growing.

Almost two thirds (64 per cent) of some 10, 000 people who were surveyed across 12 countries said they knew antibiotic resistance was an issue that could affect them and their families – but were less well informed about how it affected them and what they could do to help.

For example, 64 per cent of respondents believed antibiotics could be used to treat colds and flu, despite the fact that antibiotics have no impact on viruses. Close to one third (32 per cent) of people surveyed believed they should stop taking antibiotics when they felt better, rather than completing the prescribed course of treatment.

The 12 countries involved were Barbados, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria, the Russian Federation, Serbia, South Africa, Sudan and Vietnam, with some countries showing very high levels of (almost certainly inappropriate) antibiotics use. WHO said that the latest poll added to its knowledge about how to tackle gaps in public understanding of this huge problem.

In India, 76 per cent of respondents reported having taken antibiotics within the past six months; 90 per cent said they were prescribed or provided by a doctor or nurse.

Three quarters thought, incorrectly, that colds and flu could be treated with antibiotics; and only 58 per cent knew that they should stop taking antibiotics only when they finished the course as directed.

A further 75 per cent agreed that antibiotic resistance was one of the biggest problems in the world, while 72 per cent believed experts would solve the problem before it became too serious.

“The rise of antibiotic resistance is a global health crisis, and governments now recognise it as one of the greatest challenges for public health today. It is reaching dangerously high levels in all parts of the world,” said Dr Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General, in launching the survey findings today. “Antibiotic resistance is compromising our ability to treat infectious diseases and undermining many advances in medicine.”

The survey findings coincide with the launch of a new WHO campaign ‘Antibiotics: Handle with care’ – a global initiative to improve understanding of the problem and change the way antibiotics are used.

“The findings of this survey point to the urgent need to improve understanding around antibiotic resistance,” commented Dr Keiji Fukuda, Special Representative of the Director-General for Antimicrobial Resistance. “This campaign is just one of the ways we are working with governments, health authorities and other partners to reduce antibiotic resistance. One of the biggest health challenges of the 21st century will require global behaviour change by individuals and societies.”

Meanwhile, the UK-led Review on Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR Review) has enlisted the help of China to create a new global fund to stimulate the development of new antibiotics.

The Review, led by ex-Goldman Sachs executive Lord Jim O’Neill has also just proposed incentives to stimulate the development of new diagnostics – another crucial element in halting the spread of drug-resistant infections.

O’Neill said, if left unchecked, AMR could be a doomsday scenario: a continued rise in resistance by 2050 could potentially lead to 10 million people dying every year and cost the world up to $100 trillion.

China has now agreed to jointly run the global fund against AMR, a move which O’Neill believes will help mobilise governments around the world. The partners aim to attract £1 billion investment to stimulate the essential research needed to tackle the problem, and launch the fund by 2016.

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