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Antimicrobial resistance: Why you should not take antibiotics for viral infections

SINGAPORE — Antimicrobial resistance occurs when disease-causing microbes, such as bacteria, viruses or parasites, grow resistant to the effects of medicine that used to be able to kill them.

Antimicrobial resistance: Why you should not take antibiotics for viral infections

Antimicrobial resistance occurs when disease-causing microbes, such as bacteria, viruses or parasites, grow resistant to the effects of medicine that used to be able to kill them. AFP file photo

SINGAPORE — Antimicrobial resistance occurs when disease-causing microbes, such as bacteria, viruses or parasites, grow resistant to the effects of medicine that used to be able to kill them.

Antimicrobial resistance happens naturally, usually through genetic changes, but is facilitated by the misuse and overuse of medicine. These include antibacterial (or antibiotic), antiviral, anti-parasitic and antifungal drugs.

One example of misuse of medicine is when antibiotics — which can kill or injure only bacteria — are taken for a viral infection.

Microbes mutate when exposed to these drugs. Because of that, drugs that could previously treat the illnesses caused by the microbes become less effective, as the germs are not killed and their growth is not stopped.

Infections then persist in the body, increasing the risk of spreading to others. Bacteria that are resistant to two or more types of drugs usually used to treat them are known as “superbugs”.

After the invention of penicillin in 1928, drug-resistant bacteria did not seem to be a problem as drug companies developed new versions of the antibiotic. But no new classes of antibiotics have been discovered since 1987, even as bacteria grew more resistant to the drugs over time.

In recent years, superbugs and antimicrobial resistance have increasingly made headlines around the world.

In 2013, Britain’s chief medical officer warned of a new wave of superbugs posing “a catastrophic threat” to the world. If tough measures are not taken to restrict the use of antibiotics and no new ones are discovered, said Professor Sally Davies then, “we will find ourselves in a health system not dissimilar to the early 19th century at some point”.

Three years prior to that, a Belgian man had died from a drug-resistant superbug originating in South Asia, the first reported death from the bacteria.

In a report this September, the World Health Organisation (WHO) noted the world is running out of antibiotics. The report found very few potential treatment options for antibiotic-resistant infections identified by WHO as posing the greatest threat to health, including drug-resistant tuberculosis, which kills around 250,000 people every year.

Antimicrobial resistant-microbes are found in people, animals, food, and the environment. They can spread between people and animals, and from person to person. For example, if livestock receive antibiotics and develop resistant bacteria in their gut, the bacteria can spread to people who eat improperly handled food from such livestock.

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