The European Centre of Disease prevention and Control (ECDC), which is focused on controlling infectious diseases like swine flu in Europe, is to write this week to all practicing GPs, warning them of the dangers of routinely prescribing antibiotics for coughs and colds because their overuse is contributing to the spread of hospital bugs and putting vital treatments under threat.
This is not a new problem, the prescription of the drugs, which are not necessary in most cases, has long fuelled the rising number of antibiotic resistant infections. But experts at the ECDC centre say that modern medicine is reaching a point when it will no longer be able to function because antibiotics are fast becoming powerless to fight life-threatening hospital infections.
The process of producing new antibiotics is too slow-paced to allow for the current growth in resistance; an ECDC spokesman said that “If we continue to consume antibiotics at the current rate, Europe may face a return to the pre-antibiotic era where a common bacterial infection could be a death sentence”
Dominic Monnet, from the ECDC’s Scientific Advice unit warned that this would mean a halt to treatments with a high-infection risk like organ transplants, intensive care and chemotherapy.
“It is the whole span of modern medicine as we know it, that we will not be able to do if we lose antibiotics.”
These concerns echo conclusions drawn from the findings of a recent European Medicines Agency study into the rising number of multi-drug resistant bacteria.
Dr Bo Aronsson who led the study said, “Industry’s pipeline contains few new antibiotics active against multidrug-resistant bacteria. Without stimulating research and development into new antibiotics, an increasing number of infected patients will be without effective treatment”.
80% of antibiotics prescriptions in the UK are from GPs and community pharmacists, as opposed to hospitals where there is more legitimate need for them. Dr A. Adams, an Edinburgh medical practitioner commented, “The simple fact of the matter is that antibiotics do nothing to help viral illnesses like your cold, sore throat or flu. Antibiotics kill bacteria, not the viruses that cause flu. But GPs are often under pressure from patients, parents or pharmaceutical interests to prescribe antibiotics for these conditions,” adding that this situation will only be “exacerbated by the approaching flu season and predictions of a second wave of swine flu.” A 2002 survey found that 60% of people surveyed did not know that antibiotics do not work against viruses, so perhaps this pressure is understandable considering the lack of public understanding on the subject.
These warnings from the ECDC are only one of many attempts to steer GPs away from this path of least resistance, and to raise public awareness of just what antibiotics can and cannot do. For instance, this Wednesday will see the first annual European Antibiotic Awareness Day, a Europe-wide campaign aiming to inform and educate the public about the danger of antibiotic resistance and the importance of prudence in antibiotic use – emphasising the need to take antibiotics only as prescribed in order to maximise their effects and prevent the emergence of resistant bacteria.
According to the Department of Health, the government’s progress on this matter is “well ahead” of other European nations, but says that the Department of Health “recognises that this work must be sustained, with joint working across disciplinary boundaries, and that action must be maintained at local, national and international levels” to be effective.
As for those of us who are unfortunate enough to catch the flu this winter, the Chief Medical Officer of England, Sir Liam Donaldson simply advises that “you should rest, take plenty of fluids and speak to your pharmacist who will advise you on over the counter remedies that are available.”