Public Confused About Antibiotic Resistance, WHO Says

Megan Brooks

November 16, 2015

Misconceptions about antibiotics and the health threat posed by antibiotic resistance are common around the world, according to findings from a multicountry survey from the World Health Organization (WHO) released today.

The survey, conducted online and in person, asked nearly 10,000 adults about use and knowledge of antibiotics and antibiotic resistance. It was conducted in 12 countries (two countries per WHO region): Barbados, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria, the Russian Federation, Serbia, South Africa, Sudan, and Vietnam. Among the common misconceptions highlighted by the WHO:

  • Three quarters (76%) of respondents think antibiotic resistance happens when the body (not bacteria) becomes resistant to antibiotics.

  • Two thirds (66%) believe individuals are not at risk for a drug-resistant infection if they personally take their antibiotics as prescribed. Nearly half (44%) of respondents think antibiotic resistance is only a problem for people who take antibiotics regularly.

  • More than half (57%) of respondents think there is not much they can do to stop antibiotic resistance, and 64% believe the medical community will solve the problem before it becomes a serious threat.

  • Nearly two thirds (64%) say they know antibiotic resistance is an issue that could affect them and their families, but how it affects them and what they can do to address it are not well understood.

  • Nearly two thirds (64%) of respondents believe antibiotics can be used to treat viruses, and one third (32%) believe they can stop taking antibiotics when they feel better, rather than completing the prescribed course of treatment.

The End of Modern Medicine?

Release of the survey findings coincides with the launch of a new global WHO campaign, "Antibiotics: Handle With Care," during the first World Antibiotic Awareness Week, November 16 to 22. The aim of the campaign is to raise awareness and encourage best practices among the public, policymakers, and health and agriculture professionals to avoid the further emergence and spread of antibiotic resistance, the WHO said.

"The rise of antibiotic resistance is a global health crisis," Margaret Chan, MD, WHO director-general, said during a media briefing. "Antimicrobial resistance is on the rise in every region of the world. We are losing our first-line antibiotics. This makes a broad range of common infections much more difficult to treat, and replacement treatments are more costly, more toxic, and need much longer durations of treatment," she noted.

"With few replacement [antibiotics] in the pipeline, the world is heading towards a postantibiotic era in which common infections will once again kill. If current trends continue, sophisticated interventions, like organ transplantation, joint replacement, cancer chemotherapy, and care of preterm infants, will become more difficult or even too dangerous to undertake. This will mean the end of modern medicine as we know it," Dr Chan added.

Thankfully, "more and more governments now recognize the importance of this issue as one of the greatest threats to health today," she said. A global action plan to tackle antimicrobial resistance was endorsed at the World Health Assembly in May 2015. One of the plan's five objectives is to improve awareness and understanding of antibiotic resistance through effective communication, education, and training.

Precious Commodity

Overuse and misuse of antibiotics in people and animals are the "fundamental" drivers of antibiotic resistance, Keiji Fukuda, MD, special representative of the director-general for antimicrobial resistance, noted during the briefing. Antibiotics are a "global good that we need to handle with care," which is the theme of the WHO campaign, he added. "We believe that everybody, this means the general public, health workers, farmers, policymakers, everybody, has a critical role in turning this around."

Health professionals, added Dr Chan, "need to treat antibiotics as a precious commodity and try to resist the pressure from individual patients who come in with a cold or flu or viral infection asking for antibiotics. It will be important for doctors who are very trusted by their patients to explain to them why for any viral infection antibiotics are not needed. And when they do prescribe a full course of antibiotics, they need to remind patients to take the full course," she said.

More information on the survey and WHO campaign are available on the WHO's website.

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