Antibiotics Awareness Week 2021: The cost of worldwide misconceptions about antibiotics

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In order to stay healthy, one should know where, when, and how to seek high-quality medical treatment. However, among various types of medications and tons of information available on the Internet nowadays it is difficult to distinguish the options that may work best for different health-related situations. Besides, it is easy to get lost in the unprofessional advice of laypersons, who occasionally recommend approaches to treatment without a decent level of reliability and proper evaluation. That is why it is very important to undertake measures to improve people’s awareness about the effect, usage, and consequences of medications, and especially antibiotics.

Misconception about and misusage of antibiotics is not a local problem, but a global health crisis. Antibiotics can save lives, but successful gains are often overshadowed by the lack of knowledge of how to use them adequately. Consequently, misusage leads to the development of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) among the population. As a result, AMR makes it difficult to defeat infections actively spreading in the community. It is estimated that around 700,000 people die annually because of antimicrobial resistance [1]. Even in high-income countries, such as the United States, around “28% of antibiotics are prescribed unnecessarily” [2], exposing the public to the dangers of AMR.

According to a multi-country survey with the involvement of 10,000 people from 12 countries, the World Health Organisation (WHO) admitted that there is a common misunderstanding about AMR and the purpose of antibiotic usage in general [3]. For example, the survey showed that 64% of respondents claim that viruses such as flu or cold can be treated with antibiotics, while in fact they cannot. Furthermore, due to the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, there are more reasons to be concerned about the escalating rate of antibiotics overuse and misuse [4].

Different factors influence health literacy levels among people of different countries such as age, education, social status, living in urban or rural areas, access to information, antibiotic knowledge, and many others. However, another major problem that contributes to misuse and inappropriate self-medication is the possibility of buying antibiotics in pharmacies without prescriptions. It is believed that the major prevalence of self-medication by using antibiotics is among developing and low-income countries with weak legislation, lack of control, and poor accountability. According to some studies, “80% of illness episodes in developing countries are self-treated with medicines obtained from community pharmacies” [5].

While it is impossible to change public behaviour globally overnight, some progress in spreading the message about right antibiotic stewardship has been made at both global and local levels. For example, in 2015 WHO launched the Global Antimicrobial Resistance and Use Surveillance System (GLASS), which helps to share information between countries and monitor implementation of AMR-related activities at the national level. GLASS cooperates its efforts with other regional networks located in Europe (European Antimicrobial Resistance Surveillance Network), Central Asia (Central Asian and European Surveillance of Antimicrobial Resistance), and Latin America (Latin American Network for Antimicrobial Resistance Surveillance), which makes the exchange of information smooth [6].

Even though communication between countries exists, a lot of work still depends on the engagement of scientists, grassroots organizations, and the public in boosting responsible use of antibiotics. A good example of such interaction is demonstrated by the UK Health Security Agency, which designed a range of educational resources available for the public. For example, UKHSA established a free platform “e-Bug” on which people can learn more about how to look after health responsibly in form of games, quizzes, and debate kits [7]. Interestingly, recent studies have found that gamification have a positive correlation with the public’s increase in knowledge about AMR [8]. This may offer a promising way forward when conducting awareness campaigns across the globe.

The European Food Safety Authority claims that “fighting antimicrobial resistance is a priority” and that it is necessary to “stop resistant bacteria from developing” to keep current and future generations safe [9]. In order to achieve the proliferation of AMR-related knowledge widely, multisectoral cooperation and dissemination of information are needed. Otherwise, it is expected to lose 10 million lives annually by 2050 unless any actions are taken [10].


Author information: Daria Blinova is a graduate student from Western Michigan University, studying International Development Administration at the Department of Political Science.



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