Working together to fight the superbugs

Date published: 16 November 2018

This week has been World Antibiotic Awareness Week and there are three things you’ll want to know about superbugs;

antibiotic awareness week
  • The reason they get called superbugs is that they have evolved to resist antibiotics or other antimicrobial treatment, so are more dangerous because they are harder to treat.
  • The second thing is that the emergence and spread of drug-resistant bugs is driven mainly by over-use and inappropriate use of antibiotics in both humans and animals.
  • The third – and this is crucial – is that this isn’t just about human health and healthcare; it’s also about farming, veterinary medicine, the food chain and the environment. These are all inherently and inextricably intertwined.

Wherever we make an environment favourable for infectious bugs to adapt to antibiotics and then multiply, they take advantage. Highly resistant bacteria and antibiotic residues are being found in bathing water, streams and slurry.
And it appears that the bugs are very focused working together and multiplying.
That is why we must work together across government, public bodies and the research community, to tackle antimicrobial resistance - which is the bugs’ ability to fend off the medicines that we use to treat the infections that they cause. We can’t tackle this threat by staying in silos. In Northern Ireland, and across the world, specialists in healthcare, public health, agriculture, veterinary science, the food chain and the environment are combining their efforts to avert a post-antibiotic disaster. Nature itself is of course fantastically interdependent. So society’s responses to threats such as antimicrobial resistance also has to be in the form of teamwork. There’s a term for this approach: One Health.
Only a One Health approach can keep our antibiotics working, and help us to invent new classes of antibiotics.
Antimicrobial resistance is one of the most serious threats to health across the world. As certain antibiotics lose their ability to kill particular strains of microbe, and if we cannot develop new drugs that can beat those bugs, then by the year 2050 we can expect about 10 million deaths per year, worldwide, from drug-resistant infections.
We are seeing cases of TB that are incurable because they are resistant to every antibiotic that we have. Antibiotics are used in surgery to prevent infection. If the drugs don’t work, procedures that are routine will no longer be safe, for example caesarean sections or having your appendix removed. In 2015 it is estimated that 33,000 people died because of AMR in Europe. And this figure might be an underestimation. Reducing our use of antibiotics is one of the best ways we can tackle this growing crisis.
Antimicrobial resistance to veterinary medicines not only affects human, animal health and welfare with a reduction in effective antimicrobials for use, but could also severely affect the agricultural industry as a whole through its potential impact on trade.
In the new year we will publish a new five-year, One Health, action plan for Northern Ireland to fight antimicrobial resistance.   This will outline actions to encourage responsible use of antibiotics in human medicine as well as in veterinary medicine, both in food producing animals and in pets.  The action plan will also promote initiatives aimed at reducing the need for antibiotics through preventing infection by improving hygiene, biosecurity measures and implementing effective vaccination strategies
By the way, there is a fourth thing about superbugs: every one of us can join in the fight. One of the most effective weapons that we have is soap and water! Washing our hands is the best way to prevent infections occurring in the first place, and reduce the need for antibiotics to treat them. Also trust your vet or doctor and accept their advice that an antibiotic may not be appropriate for every infection. Vets and doctors have the knowledge and diagnostic tools to decide the best treatment for you and your animals. And if we don’t demand an antibiotic for a cold or flu, that too can help to defend our defences.
Michael McBride               Robert Huey                        Maria Jennings
Chief Medical Officer        Chief Veterinary Officer    Director, FSA in
                                                                                           Northern Ireland

Notes to editors: 

  1. For media enquiries please contact the DoH Press Office team on 028 9052 0575 or email  Out of office hours please contact the Duty Press Officer on 028 9037 8110. Follow us on Twitter @healthdpt   

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