Message of the WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, on World Antibiotic Awareness Week, 13-19 November 2017

The World Health Organization will join the global community to commemorate World Antibiotics Awareness Week from 13-19 November 2017. The theme this year is “Seek advice from a qualified health professional before taking antibiotics”. Antibiotics are medicines used to prevent and treat bacterial infections in humans and animals. 

Antibiotics are in danger of losing their effectiveness due to over-prescribing and dispensing by health care professionals, misuse by patients such as not following the advice of healthcare professionals, overuse in farming and animal husbandry, poor infection control, and a lack of new antibiotics. Antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria (not humans or animals) become resistant to the active ingredients in these medicines. Antibiotic resistant bacteria may infect humans and animals, making the infections they cause harder to treat, contributing to prolonged, more expensive treatments, longer hospital stays, lost productivity and increased mortality. 

Antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest threats to global health and development today, and is rising at alarming rates around the world. Infections such as pneumonia, tuberculosis and gonorrhea are becoming sometimes impossible to treat as antibiotics become less effective. For instance, the bacteria that cause gonorrhea are evolving rapidly to evade new classes of antibiotics to treat the infection. This puts women particularly at greater risk of developing complications such as pelvic inflammatory disease, ectopic pregnancy and infertility, as well as an increased risk of HIV. 

Africa lacks adequate data to clearly grasp the scope and scale of the problem. However, we know that antibiotic resistance is rising because common bacteria which cause urinary tract infections, diarrhea, wound infections which can lead to sepsis, and pneumonia among other things, are becoming resistant to frequently available and prescribed antibiotics. 

From being miracle life-savers, antibiotics are becoming ineffective. Antibiotic resistant infections can affect anyone, of any age in any country. Nothing less than global health security is at stake when antibiotics are misused. 

Fortunately, there is hope that this trend can be reversed through strong country leadership to drive action across society, from the public, to the healthcare industry, to governments at local, national and international levels. Critical steps include close tracking of antibiotic-resistant infections, regulating the appropriate use of quality medicines, and warning the public about the dangers of misuse of antibiotics.   

Patients should only use antibiotics when prescribed by a certified healthcare professional, and never demand them if they are unnecessary. It is important to follow doctor’s advice and never share antibiotics. The careful use of antibiotics is critical to keep them effective for as long as possible.

Healthcare practitioners should always follow good infection prevention and control practices, and only prescribe and dispense antibiotics when they are truly needed. They should inform patients on the appropriate use of antibiotics, and educate them on how to avoid common infections.

Farmers and food producers can help by giving antibiotics to animals (food-producing and companion animals) only to control or treat infectious diseases, and phase out the routine use of antibiotics to promote growth. By doing this, humans will be less prone to antibiotic resistance through the consumption of animal products. 

Research and development is the cornerstone of new, effective antibiotics to save lives. However, since the 1980s there have been very few new antibiotics. Incentives such as public-private partnerships are urgently needed to stimulate the development of new antibiotics.  

The World Health Organization (WHO) in the African Region has made the fight against antibiotic resistance a top health priority, and is working with countries to implement the Regional Emergency and Security Strategy. With WHO support, more countries are developing and implementing national action plans to combat antibiotic resistance and improve surveillance to provide reliable data for action. WHO will assist countries to build stronger health systems through regulation and policy actions to promote the appropriate use of quality antibiotics. We will continue to advocate for the development of innovative treatments. 

Misuse of antibiotics puts us all at risk. Taking antibiotics unnecessarily speeds up antibiotic resistance, making infections more difficult and expensive to treat. Therefore I advise everyone to think twice, seek advice and always consult a qualified health professional before taking antibiotics.