It is World Antibiotic Awareness Week and we have now reached a point where antibiotic resistance has been declared as one of the biggest threats to global health by the World Health Organization. In Hong Kong, the problem is particularly alarming. A recent survey indicates that nearly half of the population has consumed antibiotics in the past year. Increasing general awareness and changing our attitude towards antibiotic use is of great importance for the future.
It is not you that becomes resistant to antibiotics but the bacteria
Antibiotics are very effective drugs that fight off bacterial infections, but antibiotic misuse drives antibiotic resistance. To make it clear, bacteria become antibiotic-resistant and the danger in that lies in developing an infection caused by an antibiotic-resistant bacterium. In this case, an antibiotic course will be much less effective in treating your infection, which means you will have to rely on your own immune system to ward off the infection. Certain bacterial infections that were easily treated with effective antibiotics such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, gonorrhea and syphilis are now facing bacterial resistance, meaning that in the future these infections will lead to higher medical costs and increased mortality. Clearly, it is time to take action!
The alarming overuse of antibiotics in Hong Kong
Unfortunately, the antibiotic use in Hong Kong is out of proportion. A 2011 survey reported that 34.6% of the Hong Kong population had used antibiotics in the past year, but the most recent survey has indicated that this statistic has risen to almost half of the population using antibiotics in the past year. This statistic is worrying for several reasons. Firstly, only a small portion of common illnesses such as the flu and the common cold are actually of bacterial origin, meaning the majority is of viral origin. Antibiotics are only meant to treat bacterial infections, not viral ones and using antibiotics for viral infections speeds up the natural process of antibiotic resistance in bacteria. This exact phenomenon seems to have taken place in Hong Kong where 48% of all Staphylococcus aureus infections were found to be antibiotic resistant, which is four times higher than in Britain.
In Hong Kong, the government has regulated antibiotic over-the-counter purchases by implementing regulations that only allow licensed pharmacists to sell antibiotics to patients who have a valid doctor’s prescription. Nevertheless, 2% of the surveyed antibiotic users admitted to illegally buying over-the-counter antibiotics. In light of the alarming antibiotic misuse in Hong Kong, the government has set up an action plan on antibiotic use. This Hong Kong Strategy and Action Plan on Antimicrobial Resistance 5-year plan was released in July 2017 and aims to create awareness, educate healthcare workers, strengthen regulation, monitor compliance and enhance infection prevention.
What you can do on a personal level to prevent antibiotic resistance
As an individual, there are things you can do to prevent antibiotic resistance. You can help control it by following certain recommendations, such as:
- Only using antibiotics when issued a prescription by a certified health professional.
- Listening to your doctor or health care practitioner if they tell you that you do not need antibiotics.
- Using the antibiotics as instructed by your health care professional.
- Not sharing antibiotics.
- Maintaining proper personal and environmental hygiene to prevent infections. This includes washing hands regularly, preparing food hygienically, avoiding contact with sick people and practicing safe sex.
Have fun testing your antibiotic resistance knowledge here with the WHO’s quiz!
Want to learn more? Read our article on the flu season in Hong Kong here.