We’ve been in a pandemic for more than 20 months and Covid cases and deaths are now on the decline. This is good news, but UK health officials are concerned about another “hidden pandemic” on the rise.
The nation is at-risk from damaging antibiotic resistance, the UK Health Security Agency has warned. The agency has issued a reminder for Brits not to use antibiotics in the treatment of colds this winter.
One in five people with a bloodstream infection in 2020 had an antibiotic-resistant infection, the agency said. The number has dropped since 2019, but this is because the overall number of infections fell rapidly in 2020, during Covid-19 restrictions.
A closer inspection of the data shows that the proportion of infections that were resistant to one or more antibiotics actually increased – and numbers are still much higher than they were six years ago.
“This suggests that resistant infections are likely to rise in the post-pandemic years and will require ongoing action,” the agency said in a statement.
Should we be worried? Here’s what the news means for you.
What is antibiotic resistance?
Antibiotics aren’t always a bad and are quite useful to take depending on how sick you are. They should only be taken or prescribed to treat bacterial infections such as sepsis, meningitis or pneumonia. Antibiotics can also be helpful when protecting people against infections during chemotherapy, caesarean sections and other common surgeries.
Contrary to popular belief, antibiotics should not be used to treat viral infections, such as colds, and they usually make little difference for conditions such as earache.
Prescriptions of antibiotics when they’re not needed or effective is causing antibiotic resistance. This is when bacteria no longer responds to antibiotics.
If the bacteria causing an infection doesn’t respond to treatment with common medicines, this might lead to major complications and potential hospital admission.
“This is especially the case with STIs. There are some strains of gonorrhoea in the north of England where there are no antibiotics that can treat it,” he said.
“The infectious disease specialists are scratching their heads and wondering what to do. It’s really worrying. There should be alarm bells ringing for all of us.”
Why is antibiotic resistance increasing?
Despite the slight overall dip in 2020, antibiotic resistance has been steadily rising in recent years. The overprescription and overuse of antibiotics is fuelling antibiotic resistance, which is why it’s important to only take the drugs when you really need them and have been prescribed by a medical professional. If you’ve got half-empty packets in your medicine cabinet, throw them out.
Data from the English surveillance programme for antimicrobial utilisation and resistance (ESPAUR) for 2020-2021 highlights that the total number of bloodstream infections fell in 2020 – for the first time since 2016.
However, the proportion of antibiotic-resistant infections grew over the same period, producing concerns of more increases to come.
Deaths from deaths from antibiotic-resistant infections in England went down slightly, to 2,228 in 2020. Previously they increased over the last four years, but they’re expected in increase again once lockdown stops impacting the results.
What does it mean for you?
Dr Susan Hopkins, the chief medical advisor at the UKHSA warned that antibiotic resistance has been described as “a hidden pandemic and it’s important that we do not come out of Covid-19 and enter into another crisis.”
“As we head into winter, with increasing amounts of respiratory infections in circulation, it’s important to remember that antibiotics are not needed for many cold-like symptoms. Stay at home if you feel unwell,” she said.
“Taking antibiotics when you do not need them only puts you and your loved ones at more risk in the future, so please listen to your GP, nurse, dentist or pharmacist’s advice.”