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Two-thirds of people think antibiotics can cure the flu

A World Health Organisation survey has revealed that antibiotic resistance has become a global crisis.

Almost two-thirds (64%) of some 10 000 people who participated in a World Health Organisation (WHO) survey believe antibiotics can be used to treat colds and flu, despite the fact that antibiotics have no impact on viruses. 

Close to one-third (32%) of people surveyed think they should stop taking antibiotics when they feel better, rather than completing the prescribed course of treatment.

The multi-country survey included 14 questions on the use of antibiotics, knowledge of antibiotics and of antibiotic resistance and used a mix of online and face-to-face interviews. It was conducted in 12 countries, namely South Africa, Barbados, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria, Russia, Serbia, Sudan and Vietnam. 

The survey was released on Monday. 

There were some positive outcomes from South Africa: 87% of respondents know they should only stop taking antibiotics when they finish the course of treatment and more than 90% were prescribed their treatment by a doctor or nurse and were also given professional advice on how the medication should be taken. 

Eighty seven percent of South African respondents – more than any other country in the survey – recognized that it’s not alright to use antibiotics that were given to a friend of family member. Sharing antibiotics can encourage the development of resistance.

But in other African countries such as Nigeria, only 38% of respondents have heard of the term “antibiotic resistance”.

According to the WHO, antibiotic resistance happens when bacteria change and become resistant to the antibiotics used to treat the infections they cause. “Overuse and misuse of antibiotics increase the development of resistant bacteria and this survey points out some of the practices, gaps in understanding and misconceptions which contribute to this phenomenon,” the organisation said in a press release.

Marc Mendelson, co-chair of the South African Antibiotic Stewardship Programme, warned that “twenty percent of the people surveyed by the WHO even thought that antibiotics should be used for [a virus such as] HIV”. “Using antibiotics for a viral infection will only result in the person experiencing unwanted side-effects and it will increase the chances of antibiotic resistance,” he said.  

The WHO’s director general, Margaret Chan, cautioned that “antibiotic resistance is compromising our ability to treat infectious diseases and undermining many advances in medicine”. “The rise of antibiotic resistance is a global health crisis, and governments now recognise it as one of the greatest challenges for public health today. It is reaching dangerously high levels in all parts of the world,” she said in the WHO’s press release.  

Mendelson said South Africa is “seeing untreatable bacterial infections in our hospitals”.  “The main reason for antibiotic resistance is because of the misuse and overuse of antibiotics for infections and reasons that are not required. There’s no difference between South Africa and other countries – it’s a worldwide crisis.”

Ina Skosana was a health reporter at Bhekisisa.

Mia Malan is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bhekisisa. She has worked in newsrooms in Johannesburg, Nairobi and Washington, DC, winning more than 30 awards for her radio, print and television work.