Ignorance is bliss for antibiotic-resistant superbugs

American education reformer and abolitionist Horace Mann said that “ignorance breeds monsters to fill up all the vacuities of the soul that are unoccupied by the verities of knowledge.” But in a more literal sense, people’s ignorance regarding antibiotics is helping to create actual superbugs. “The rise of antibiotic resistance is a global health crisis,” WHO Director-General Margaret Chan told journalists in a telebriefing from the organization's Geneva headquarters on Monday, November 15th. She added that the problem was “reaching dangerous levels” all over the world and that it could very well lead to “the end of medicine as we know it.” Superbug infections include multi-drug-resistant typhoid, tuberculosis and gonorrhea, and cause hundreds of thousands of deaths every year, and the rate is accelerating.

The World Health Organization polled 10,000 people from Barbados, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria, Russia, Serbia, South Africa, Sudan and Vietnam. The health agency found that 64% of the respondents thought that drugs derived from penicillin and other antibiotics can treat colds and the flu, despite the fact that these are viral infections and antibiotics are only effective against bacterial infections. Additionally, about one third believe that they should stop taking antibiotics as soon as they feel better instead of completing the prescribed course of treatment, and three-quarters were under the impression that antibiotic resistance means the human body is resistant to drugs. In fact, antibiotic resistance occurs when the bacteria become becomes resistant to the drugs used to treat the infections they cause – making these infections harder to treat. Misuse and overuse of antibiotics contribute to masking the bacteria resistant.

“The findings ... point to the urgent need to improve understanding around antibiotic resistance,” the WHO's special representative for antimicrobial resistance Keiji Fukuda said. “One of the biggest health challenges of the 21st century will require global behavior change by individuals and societies.” About half of the respondents thought that drug resistance is only a problem for people who take antibiotics frequently, and 66% believed that they are not at risk of a superbug infection if they take their antibiotics as prescribed. The fact remains, though, that people of all ages and from anywhere in the world can be affected by a drug-resistant infection. “Doctors need to treat antibiotics as a precious commodity,” Chan said, and urged them to talk patients out of demanding antibiotics for infections won’t benefit from antibiotic use. Fukuda believes that it may take 5-10 years to win the “race against the pathogens” provided that everyone does their share.

Related: C'est difficile: Superbug kills 29,000 a year