Today (18 November 2014) is European Antibiotic Awareness Day, part of a global effort to raise public understanding of antibiotics.  Public Health England is co-ordinating efforts aimed not only at public health but also at antibiotic use in animals and its impact on the food chain. 

Antibiotic Awareness Day aims to improve understanding of when antibiotics are appropriate and what they can and cannot treat.  A survey of GPs earlier this year found that 90% of the GPs questioned felt pressured by patients to prescribe antibiotics.  Almost half of GPs said they had prescribed antibiotics because a patient demanded them, even though the GP knew that antibiotics would not make any clinical difference to the patient's symptoms.   

The event is particularly relevant this year after a number of recent reports about the increasing resistance of bacteria to antibiotics and the long-term implications for public health.  As many bacteria are becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics, the levels of disease – and mortality – are expected to rise.  

Hospital patients are now familiar with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), its very name confirming its resistance to standard antibiotic treatments.  MRSA has become very difficult to treat, leading to prolonged stays in hospital and potentially devastating consequences for patients in whom infection develops.  Many ascribe this resistance to inappropriate use of antibiotics over a number of years to treat relatively minor ailments from which patients would have recovered without any drugs. 

Using antibiotics unnecessarily or using an antibiotic that is not targeted to a patient's infection is now taking its toll.  There are now bacteria  called ‘superbugs’ which are no longer susceptible to certain antibiotics and are becoming more prevalent.  They are an everyday problem in hospitals throughout the UK and beyond and developing new antibiotics is proving difficult, expensive and time-consuming. 

There is significant concern that antibiotics will simply stop working.  The Prime Minister has described the potentially devastating effect of not having antibiotics to treat infections as sending healthcare "back to the dark ages".  Diseases that have been well managed for decades may increase with potentially disastrous consequences.