Johannesburg - Between 70 and 90 percent of antibiotic prescriptions given by doctors are unnecessary.
The overuse of antibiotics, coupled with poor infection control and the length of time people are on antibiotics, has brought about a worldwide crisis of “superbugs”, or bacteria that are resistant to common antibiotic medication.
At a media briefing on Wednesday, in the run-up to the Wits Faculty of Health Sciences’ 10th Prestigious Research Lecture at the end of the month, the department’s academic head of the division of critical care, Professor Guy Richards, and Professor Adriano Duse, the head of clinical microbiology and infectious diseases in the School of Pathology, emphasised the dangers of superbugs.
The June 30 lecture is themed Superbugs: Are the bugs winning the war?
Up until recently, the only superbug people knew of was Staphylococcus aureus, which Richards said had caused problems in the past. But now the world was facing a bigger threat of a group of organisms that were developing resistance to the world’s last line of antibiotics.
Duse said superbugs were germs that were difficult to treat, sometimes a germ that had been known for years and had became more virulent.
“In the hospital we are now faced with the threat of the possibility that you could be admitted and treated for a surgical or medical condition, and could acquire a highly resistant organism that could either be very difficult or impossible to treat,” Richards said.
The primary problems were overuse of antibiotics medically and from a veterinary perspective.
“All over the world, antibiotics are used as growth stimulants in the animal industry. It’s absolute nonsense and has been banned in a number of countries. We hope it will be banned here too. Every time the load of antibiotics increases, the resistance to them also increases,” he added.
General practitioners were also part of the problem in that they overused antibiotics by prescribing them to treat common colds and influenza while 90 percent of these cases should not be treated with them.
“For example, if you go to a doctor with bronchitis, you expect to get an antibiotic, and you shouldn’t.
“There have been more than 40 publications which show that an antibiotic in the face of bronchitis is a waste of time and increases resistance,” Richards said.
Broad-spectrum antibiotics should be reserved for hospital-acquired infections and should not be used just because a patient was very sick.
Richards said what was also particularly worrying was that people did not wash their hands – doctors included – and that was one of the many ways bugs were transmitted.
Said Duse: “The worst superbug is man; man is the common denominator, whether it’s the spreading or prescribing behaviour.”
He said patients needed to be empowered with knowledge in order to question their doctors on their reasons for prescribing antibiotics.