Antibiotic resistance is reaching such dangerous proportions that the entire global health system is at risk of collapse, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned on November 16.
The agency released a report highlighting many of the myths about antibiotics that people believe worldwide, and how these contribute to the spread of antibiotic resistance.
"The rise of antibiotic resistance is a global health crisis," said WHO head, Margaret Chan. "More and more governments recognize (it is) one of the greatest threats to health today."
"Super bugs haunt hospitals and intensive care units all around the world," Chan said, and their increasing prevalence threatens to push the world into "a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections will once again kill."
Myths that kill
Antibiotic resistance naturally emerges as a result of natural selection, similar to pesticide resistance in insects or plants. In the course of their evolution, bacteria have developed a wide array of defenses against the chemicals that other organisms produce in order to kill them – the chemicals that antibiotics are derived from or based on. Different bacteria naturally vary in their resistance to different chemicals. But when a person is treated with antibiotics, all the bacteria most susceptible to that drug die, leaving only the more resistant organisms to reproduce and pass their resistance on to the next generation.
Although this process is inevitable, it can be worsened and sped up by poor antibiotic practices – and this is exactly what is happening, the WHO warns. The agency recently surveyed people in 12 countries on their ideas about antibiotic use and resistance. The results revealed widespread and dangerous misconceptions, the agency said.
For example, 64 percent of those questioned believe that antibiotics can be used to treat the cold or flu, even though these diseases are caused by viruses. Antibiotics are only effective against bacteria.
The study found that 66 percent believe that people who take their antibiotics as prescribed cannot be harmed by antibiotic resistance. Nearly 50 percent think that only people who take antibiotics regularly can get sick from superbugs.
Both of these reflect a common misconception that antibiotic resistance is something that a person develops. In fact, antibiotic resistance is the result of evolution among bacteria. Once a superbug evolves, it can infect anyone.
About one-third of respondents believed that it is best to stop taking antibiotics as soon as you feel better. But stopping antibiotics partway through a treatment places a person at risk of disease resurgence and speeds up the evolution of drug resistance by leaving a larger population of the most resistant bacteria behind.
The end of modern medicine?
Modern medicine and all its achievements are founded upon effective antibiotics. Chan noted that antibiotics are essential to preserving the lives of premature infants and people undergoing cancer treatments and routine surgeries of all kinds. If drug resistance continues to develop unchecked, she said, it "will mean the end of modern medicine as we know it."
In an effort to help slow the spread of antibiotic resistance, the WHO has launched a campaign called "Antibiotics: Handle with care".
"One of the biggest health challenges of the 21st century will require global behavior change by individuals and societies," said Keiji Fukuda, the UN chief's special representative on antimicrobial resistance.
"Antibiotics are really one of the miracles of the time that we live in. They are a global good ... that we cannot take for granted," he said.
Among the behavior changes the WHO is calling for are that people take antibiotics only when and as prescribed. The agency is also calling on doctors to be less free with antibiotic prescriptions.
"Doctors need to treat antibiotics as a precious commodity," Chan said.