Raising Awareness About #AntibioticResistance

Posted by Judith Garber
November 23, 2015
A microbiologist reads a panel to check on a bacterium's resistance to an antibiotic in a lab within the Infectious Disease Laboratory at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

This month, a five-year-old child with a drug-resistant strain of tuberculosis (TB) finally beat the infection after three-years of care by a team of specialists at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, one of the best pediatric facilities anywhere. That kind of care is largely out of reach for the thousands of children in developing countries who are infected with antibiotic-resistant TB every year. They are the victims of disease made more rampant by the misuse of potentially life-saving drugs, and for their sake, we must get the word out on the proper use of antibiotics.

That was the mission behind the inaugural World Antibiotic Awareness Week commemoration, recently held November 16-22, 2015. This first global observation of World Antibiotic Awareness week comes on the heels of President Obama’s call to action urging countries to address this problem in March 2015, when he issued a National Action Plan to Combat Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria.

This is a critical time to drive home the message that antibiotic-resistant diseases threaten us all. Very simply, antibiotics are drugs that kill bacteria, and when they are used inappropriately or when patients do not finish their prescriptions, the strongest bacteria get a chance to multiply and evolve. The result can be a drug resistant strain – one that defeats the antibiotics doctors prescribe. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now classifies three bacteria strains as urgent threats, representing especially pernicious forms of gonorrhea, diarrhea, and an internal infection often spread in hospitals. Another dozen, including TB, are designated serious threats.

How does antibiotic resistance happen?

The misuse of antibiotics is at the heart of the matter. Taking antibiotics for a cold, flu, or any viral infection, is useless and only helps strengthen an infection. Doctors know this but often prescribe antibiotics to patients who ask for them anyway. In many countries, people can buy antibiotics – sometimes of dubious quality – without a prescription. Even when they get the right prescription, patients often stop taking their pills once they feel better. This allows bacteria to “learn” through mutation, selection, and even genetic exchange how to survive antibiotics.

Combating drug-resistant maladies starts with simple actions you can take as an individual:

  1. Only take antibiotics as prescribed and make sure you finish your dose.  
  2. Don't ask your doctor for antibiotics when you have the flu or a cold, and don't take pills from an old prescription –- the one you didn’t finish in the medicine cabinet–- in hopes of feeling better.  
  3. Spread the word to your family and friends. Antibiotic-resistance is occurring all over the world.  We know in the United States, this unfortunate trend contributes to more than 23,000 deaths and 2 million illnesses every year.  The associated health-care costs reach up to $35 billion.  The figures are similarly stark elsewhere: an estimated 25,000 deaths per year in Europe, 38,000 in Thailand, and 58,000 babies in India. 

Less-effective antibiotics mean less-effective medicine. Common infectious diseases can become deadly. Cesarean section births, appendectomies, and other relatively common surgeries become much riskier as the bacteria that cause secondary infections become stronger. 

Drug resistance is also a factor in how we fight diseases caused by parasites, viruses, and other microbes. For example, malaria and influenza are two of the world’s major killers, and both are relatively quick to change and require new countermeasures. This means new and more expensive treatments for malaria as the years go by, and the vaccine for influenza requires a new formulation every year.

These diseases undermine the social, economic, and human development of all nations -– especially the poorest. They have the potential to undermine much of the progress we have made against illness and infirmity, and we all must do our best to limit their effects.

The State Department is working with the World Health Organization and other foreign partners on a Global Action Plan on Microbial Resistance to improve the situation around the world. We also support the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA), a historic commitment by the United States to assist 30 countries in improving their capacity to prevent, detect, and rapidly respond to infectious disease threats. Our GHSA partners will announce support for another 30 countries soon, and antimicrobial resistance will be one of the key action items for the organization.

Through these vehicles, we are encouraging countries to improve data collection and sharing so we can better understand how to tackle what is a big, complicated, and very dangerous challenge. This is a global effort, but it starts with individual choices: between patients and doctors, parents and children. You can be part of the solution by making smart decisions at the medicine cabinet, and helping get the word out so these lifesaving drugs work for us when we really need them.

About the Author: Judith Garber is the Acting Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs (OES).

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