What are Antibiotics?

In 1928, when Alexander Flemming first discovered modern-day penicillin which could be used to treat bacterial infections, it was hailed as one of the greatest discoveries of the 20th Century. Finally, there was a treatment that could simply cure and prevent illnesses that had plagued humanity throughout history. In subsequent years many different types of antibiotics, sometimes referred to more generally as antimicrobials, were developed, and it appeared that we had finally put an end to endless suffering, maiming and death caused by tiny bacteria attacking our bodies.

What are Antibiotics?

Antibiotics are available as tablets, capsules, liquids, creams and ointments with most only available by prescription from doctors although some creams and ointments are available over the counter. They work by killing or decreasing the growth of bacteria, thus preventing them from multiplying. It is important however that these treatments are given time to work properly, which means completing a recommended course. Failure to do so can often result in a bacterial infection not being completely eradicated, and if given a chance to survive in or on the human body, it will likely grow back stronger and resistant to the antibiotic that was used.

The Problem

Unfortunately, however these medications to this day are still over-prescribed and used leading to the emergence of disease-resistant infections, and the situation continues to deteriorate. Today hospitals around the world are ravaged by so-called superbugs and countless people are getting infections from which the antibiotics are no longer effective, and they cannot recover.

In India alone a recent study suggests 58,000 babies die each year from antibiotic resistant bacteria, or superbugs. Moreover, prolonged or overuse of antibiotics can mean our bodies are altered such that gut microbiota, vital for our overall health and wellbeing, no longer function properly and that the antibiotic simply stops working for the person taking them.

Scientists around the world are racing to develop new antibiotics to tackle the problem, and although a new medicine called Recarbio was launched in 2020 in the UK, it is worth noting it took 10-12 years to develop. With new antibiotics so hard to bring to market, and no guarantee that a steady stream can even be developed to meet the evolving nature of resistant bacteria it is vital that the way we use them changes.

In places like Europe these facts have been known for a long time and antibiotics (a controlled medicine) are only prescribed sparingly but in other parts of the world these medications are still prescribed ubiquitously, even for ailments such as flu, which is a viral infection and not suited to treatment by anti-biotics, and in some countries, it is even worse in that antibiotics that should only be prescribed by doctors are available over the counter without prescription.

Call to Action

Urgent change is needed, and on a global scale, and even though in countries like the UAE have introduced controls on the distribution and use of antibiotics, many countries are less proactive. It is therefore essential not only to legislate but also to educate. Everyone around the world has a part to play to ensure these treatments are used sparingly and appropriately, so we can slow the mutations and steady stream of new and untreatable bacterial infections, so that when we really need to use antibiotics there is a greater chance they will work and cure us.

As a health insurer, HanseMerkur is keen to support Antimicrobial Awareness Week (November 18th – 24th) and encourages everyone to be smart, informed and help to spread this important message. See the World Health Organisations import plea for people and doctors to be more responsible https://www.who.int/campaigns/world-antimicrobial-awareness-week/2021#