Fewer people are taking antibiotics in Europe, according to a survey published by the European Commission, as the fight against drug-resistant bacteria intensifies.
The EU has stepped up its focus on increasing awareness of antimicrobial resistance and this is already beginning to show results.
Since 2009, there has been a fall in the level of antibiotic use, and the number of people mistakenly using the drug as a treatment for flu, which does not respond to antibiotics, has declined by 2 %, according to the European Commission survey, published on 15 November 2013.
However, there remains work to be done in educating Europe’s citizens about the effects of the misuse of antibiotics.
One of the challenges is that up to half of Europeans still don’t realise that antibiotics won’t work against viral infections. That leads them to take the drugs when they don’t need to, giving bacteria the chance to become resistant.
Antibiotics are crucial in treating deadly bacterial infections, and to help surgeons safely carry out surgical procedures including transplants. But increasingly bacteria are becoming resistant, causing some 25 000 deaths each year and over EUR 1.5 billion in healthcare costs, the EU reported in an official document.
‘Resistance is a natural event anyway but it’s true that this natural event is encouraged by misuse and misuse means overuse or underuse,’ Dr Guénaël Rodier, the Director of the World Health Organisation’s Division of Communicable Diseases, Health Security and Environment, said.
‘For instance, you have influenza and even though you don’t need it, you take antibiotics. Or underuse, when you have tuberculosis and you feel better after three weeks and you stop a treatment which should last normally six months or nine months.’
Such misuse has contributed to a marked increase in Europe of a particular bacteria resistant to a specific class of antibiotics called ‘carbapenems’ – that are often used as a last-ditch attempt by doctors to treat healthcare-associated infections, according to data released by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) on the same day as the EU survey.
Small firms joining the fight
Now 44 small and medium-sized firms will join universities and other research organisations to help out in the fight against antibiotic resistance as part of 15 new research projects announced alongside the results of the survey.
‘Research and innovation are essential if we are to turn the tide against antimicrobial resistance.’
European Commissioner for Research and Innovation, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn
‘Research and innovation are essential if we are to turn the tide against antimicrobial resistance,’ said European Commissioner for Research and Innovation, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn.
The EU has spent over EUR 90 million on funding the new projects, which hope to develop new antibiotics and alternative treatments such as vaccines and phages – viruses that kill bacteria and thereby cure infections.
That brings the EU's total spending on research related to antibiotic resistance to around EUR 800 million for the last 16 years. With that money it has, for example, funded projects looking for new drugs, such as PharmaSea where scientists are searching the deep ocean trenches for new treatments, and research to try to stop resistance from developing in the first place.
Over EUR 100 million of the EU funding is also going to help out in the hunt for new drugs as part of a drug discovery partnership with pharmaceutical firms called the Innovative Medicines Initiative.
Tonio Borg, the European Commissioner for Health, said: ‘I cannot stress enough how seriously the Commission takes the challenge posed by antimicrobial resistance.’
Nearly 100 years ago scientists developed a vaccine for tuberculosis (TB). Today, there are 10 million new cases worldwide and 1.6 million deaths from the disease every year. Increasingly, these cases are becoming difficult to treat as the bug that causes the disease can be resistant to antibiotics. However, several new TB vaccines are under development and there is growing optimism that a new vaccine will emerge, says Helen McShane, professor of vaccinology at Oxford University, UK. This could save millions of lives, she said, but more work is needed to reassure the general public that vaccines are safe and effective.
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