Public campaign urges people to only take antibiotics when necessary

New data published today shows that more than three million surgeries and cancer treatments may become life threatening without antibiotics.

The ‘Keep Antibiotics Working’ campaign returns to alert the public to the risks of antibiotic resistance, urging them to always take their doctor, nurse or healthcare professional’s advice on antibiotics.

Antibiotics are a vital tool used to manage infections. PHE’s English Surveillance Programme for Antimicrobial Utilisation and Resistance (ESPAUR) report, published today, highlights how more than three million common procedures such as caesarean sections and hip replacements could become life-threatening without them.

Without antibiotics, infections related to surgery could double, putting people at risk of dangerous complications. Cancer patients are also much more vulnerable if antibiotics don’t work, as both cancer and the treatment (chemotherapy) reduce the ability of the immune system to fight infections. Antibiotics are critical to both prevent and treat infections in these patients.

Cancer patient Paul Hajdysz, a 66-year-old retired stonemason from Thornton, Bradford, is currently in Bradford Royal Infirmary receiving intravenous (IV) antibiotics to treat an infection he picked up while having chemotherapy, which reduces the ability of the immune system to fight infections.

Paul was successfully treated for prostate cancer several years ago but last year blood tests showed cancer had returned, but this time it was centred on his lung. He had treatment, which included surgery to remove a third of his lung, and is now receiving chemotherapy.

Paul said: “I’ve been having chemotherapy following radiotherapy and surgery for lung cancer, and I’ve still got three cycles to go, but a few days ago I picked up an infection while at home. If you’re fit and well you’d just get over it, but it affected me far more because of my lowered immunity.

“I felt dreadful: I was sweating badly and really lethargic, so I had to come into hospital for treatment with antibiotics.

“Soon after I started on them I looked and felt totally different, the colour came back to my face and I’m recovering well. The medical staff have been fantastic in looking after me, and antibiotics have been a life-saver.”

Harmful bacteria

Antibiotics are essential to treat serious bacterial infections like Paul’s, but they are frequently being used to treat illnesses such as coughs, earache and sore throats that can get better by themselves. Taking antibiotics encourages potentially harmful bacteria that live inside you to become resistant. That means that antibiotics may not work when you really need them.

Simon Brown, consultant oncologist at Bradford Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, said: “Antibiotics are vitally important for people going through chemotherapy. In the early days of chemotherapy people often died, but nowadays we have very good antibiotics and this allows us to give chemotherapy safely to lots more people.

“If antibiotics were to stop working we would probably have to cut back on treatment because it would just be too dangerous.”

The threat of antibiotic resistance continues to grow. Bloodstream infections have increased and the report shows that antibiotic resistant bloodstream infections rose by an estimated 35 per cent between 2013 and 2017.

Despite the risks of antibiotic resistance, research shows that 38 per cent of people still expect an antibiotic from a doctor’s surgery, NHS walk-in centre or ‘GP out of hours’ service when they visited with a cough, flu or a throat, ear, sinus or chest infection in 2017.

The ‘Keep Antibiotics Working’ campaign educates the public about the risks of antibiotic resistance and urges people to always take healthcare professionals’ advice as to when they need antibiotics. The campaign also provides effective self-care advice to help individuals and their families feel better if they are not prescribed antibiotics.

Helen McAuslane, consultant in health protection at PHE Yorkshire and the Humber, said: “Antibiotics are an essential part of modern medicine, keeping people safe from infection when they are at their most vulnerable. It’s concerning that, in the not too distant future, we may see more cancer patients, mothers who’ve had caesareans and patients who’ve had other surgery facing life-threatening situations if antibiotics fail to ward off infections.

“We need to preserve antibiotics for when we really need them and we are calling on the public to join us in tackling antibiotic resistance by listening to your GP, pharmacist or nurse’s advice and only taking antibiotics when necessary.

“Taking antibiotics just in case may seem like a harmless act but it can have grave consequences for you and your family’s health in future.”