Think You Need An Antibiotic? Think Again.

Surely, it will have escaped no one’s attention that this year Queen Elizabeth II is celebrating her Diamond Jubilee; she first came to the throne in 1952. It was some 12 years earlier the experiment which showed the effectiveness of penicillin was carried out. The results were published in the Lancet in August 1940; and by the end of World War II there was enough penicillin to treat every soldier who needed it.

Most of us alive today have known only one British Monarch. And indeed most of us have lived in an era where we are able to rely on antibiotics to treat serious infections. Whilst the monarchy in Britain seems likely to continue for the foreseeable future, the future availability of effective antibiotics is not so certain.

The story of the discovery of penicillin is generally pretty well known. In 1928 the Scottish bacteriologist, Alexander Fleming, is said to have luckily noticed that a mould had prevented the growth of bacteria in a dish in his laboratory. What is certain is that it was the team headed by Australian Howard Florey and German Ernst Chain which identified and produced the active antibacterial ingredient. Unfortunately, bacterial resistance to penicillin emerged within a few years of widespread use.

Now, due to prolonged inappropriate use of almost all antibiotics, resistance is such a serious issue that the World Health Organization predicts a return towards the health problems of the pre-antibiotic era within a decade. This was a time when safe surgical procedures were almost impossible when the simplest of cuts and grazes could lead to amputations, and apparently mild respiratory infections would result in death. It has become urgent to institute more rational use of these critically important medicines.

We all share responsibility, and we can all play a part in what could and should be a solution. Many of us expect, and demand, antibiotics from our doctor for comparatively simple infections which do not need antibiotics. Many of these infections are viral in origin and will never respond to antibiotics in any case.

Inappropriate and unnecessary use of antibiotics causes resistance, not just in the wider population, but also to individuals who take them. Studies show that people prescribed antibiotics are twice as likely to develop their own resistance to that drug.

Effective treatment of symptoms is usually all that’s necessary for respiratory tract infections such as the common cold. Choose products which are specific for your needs; the proprietary combination products are not necessarily the best. Ask your pharmacist to recommend what’s most appropriate.

Of course, you can minimise the need for antibiotics with some simple and sensible lifestyle and behaviour strategies. Make sure your (and your children’s and grandchildren’s) immunisation schedule is up to date. It’s not too late to get a flu vaccine this year.

And help prevent the transmission of infection by regular hand washing, especially before preparing food, and the use of alcohol gels cleansers. If you have to cough or sneeze, do so into a disposable tissue or the bend in the elbow – not into your hand.