- Bacteria are adapting and finding ways to survive the effects of antibiotics, warns chief medical officer
- Tells GPs not to yield to patient pressure and only prescribe antibiotics when really necessary
PUBLISHED: 11:15 EST, 16 November 2012 | UPDATED: 12:23 EST, 16 November 2012
GPs have been warned not to freely hand-out antibiotics over concerns that they are losing their effectiveness at an ‘alarming and irreversible’ rate.
The number of prescriptions has risen by ten per cent in the last five years and a third of all Britons have taken them in the last 12 months. Research suggests the rise is due to doctors yielding to over-demanding patients.
But experts from the Health Protection Agency warn that the overuse of antibiotics has led to a rise in resistant bacteria.
They are particularly concerned about recent increases in strains of e-coli which cause urine infections and pneumococcus bugs, that lead to pneumonia.
Chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies said this could lead to more people dying during routine operations such as heart surgery.
‘Antibiotics are losing their effectiveness at a rate that is alarming and irreversible – similar to global warming,’ Dame Sally said.
‘I urge patients and prescribers to think about the drugs they are requesting and dispensing.
‘Bacteria are adapting and finding ways to survive the effects of antibiotics, ultimately becoming resistant so they no longer work.’
Guidelines today produced by the HPA and the Royal College of General Practitioners urge doctors to only prescribe them when absolutely necessary.
Dr Cliodna McNulty, head of primary care at the HPA, said: ‘The total number of antibiotics GPs are prescribing is increasing
‘When patients go and see their GPs, if they ask for an antibiotic, the very vast majority will get one.
‘What GPs need to do is share the advantages and disadvantages of antibiotics with the patients and explain how long infections normally last.
‘The more antibiotics you have, the more likely it is that your next infection will be resistant.
‘We know that if you’ve had a chest infection or a urinary tract infection and you’ve used antibiotics in the past six months, you’re twice as likely to have a resistant organism.
‘These resistant bacteria don’t just infect you, they spread to other people who come into contact with you.’
Last year nearly 41 million prescriptions were written out for antibiotics, at a cost to the NHS of 170 million.
By comparison only 37.2 million prescriptions in 2006, a 10 per cent rise in five years.
Researchers are particularly concerned that the over-use of these drugs is fuelling a rise in bacteria which cause pneumonia and urine infections.
Patients who take antibiotics for minor coughs or sore throats may end up carrying resistant bacteria on their bodies for several months, passing them on to others.
These same bacteria may cause pneumonia or a severe urine infections in someone else, an elderly relative for example.
Dr McNulty has carried out research on 1,770 members of the public which found that 26 per cent had asked their GPs for an antibiotic within the last year.
Of these, more than 85 per cent were given a prescription.
Her research also found that 32 per cent of patients had been on antibiotics in the last 12 months.
Figures from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control show that Briton prescribes more antibiotics than ten other EU countries including Sweden, the Netherlands, Hungary, Austria and Slovakia.
Dr Michael Moore, of the RCGP said: ‘If we carry on as we are we’ll end up with infections which can’t be treated.
‘We now know that for common illnesses such as such as sore throat, acute cough and sinusitis, antibiotics do work a bit but they have a marginal effect.
‘Those infections tend to get better on their own, usually after a week.
‘But we know that by using them, we are going to grow the problem of antibiotic resistance.’
Certain conditions such as meningitis or severe chest infections will need to be treated with antibiotics however.
The guidelines urge patients suffering from severe headaches, rash, confusion or shortness of breath to seek medical help immediately.