A NUMBER of years ago, I was working with a newly qualified pharmacist in Ireland. Academically this girl was very impressive. She got full marks in her school exams before acing her way through her pharmacy degree. On completion of that degree, she was offered a two-year scholarship to study for a postgraduate degree which included a living expenses grant. It is safe to assume that this girl is in the top percentage of intelligent people in the world.
One day she came to work with cough and cold symptoms. Upon discussion, we decided that she had a virus and that all she needed to do was drink plenty of water and rest and relax as much as possible and all would be better in a week.
Much to my surprise, the next day she arrived to work a few hours late, clutching a prescription from a doctor. The doctors’ appointment cost her 50 euros.
She said the doctor, agreed with her assessment that she had a virus, however he had provided her with a prescription for an antibiotic ‘just in case’.
At the time I joked with her that she must be cheating in her exams and that she had just wasted 50 euros for nothing. She told me that she agreed with me and that she felt slightly embarrassed. She then asked if I would dispense the prescription for her. I laughed said I would and told her that she was just throwing good money after bad. The antibiotics cost her 14 euros.
I asked her, was she going to take the antibiotics? She said yes. I said, what about antibiotic resistance? She said, she knew she shouldn’t take them, but with a resigned shrug, she said she was going to take them ‘just in case’.
Antibiotics have zero effect against viruses. The overwhelming, vast majority of the time you get a cough, cold or a sore throat, it is caused by a virus. You do not need treatment. You do not need to see a doctor. You need to drink plenty of water, rest and relax as much as you can and your body will sort it out. Do this and you will be right as rain in a weeks’ time. Better still, follow my 5 Simple Steps to Healthy Living, and you may avoid getting viruses in the first place.
The scenario I described above of a patient with a virus going to see a doctor to get an antibiotic happens every single day in every single surgery in the UK. Everybody who works in health knows that giving out antibiotics for viruses is a waste of time, is a waste of money and is a waste of precious resources. But worse than that, it is dangerous. It is dangerous to the public health of everybody on the planet. It puts my life at risk, it puts your life at risk. It puts everybody in your families’ lives at risk, it puts every single one of your Facebook friends at risk, regardless of where they live in the World.
I am being, a little overdramatic here but I am not wrong, because I am talking about antibiotic resistance.
We are in a perpetual war with bacteria. We kill them with drugs, they kill us with infections. And by and large in modern times, we have been winning that war but we got sloppy and we forgot just how formidable an enemy bacteria are.
The black death killed at least 25 million people in Europe in the 1300s, TB killed a quarter of Europes’ population in the 19th century and a recent UK Government review predicts that if we carry on as we are, antibiotic resistance or ‘superbugs’ are they are sometimes called will kill 10 million people per year by 2050.
So what can we do?
We need to invest now and develop new antibiotics. There has been talk of this for a while and there is some political will, but what we need is serious action, leadership and investment sooner rather than later.
The other thing we need to do is, change the culture of overusing antibiotics and particularly the inappropriate and unnecessary use of antibiotics.
How do we do that?
There have been many feeble attempts in the past to curb the use of antibiotics for viruses. Everybody who works in health knows about this problem and has done for decades. So maybe the solution is simple is it is the doctors fault, they write the prescription, we should punish the doctors until they stop. The truth is, it’s not that simple and I have a lot of sympathy for doctors in this situation. They are under huge pressure from the public to supply a remedy to treat their illnesses.
Coughs, colds, sore throats, insect bites, eye infections, strains, sprains, sore knees, spots, cold-sores etc etc etc, will go away in roughly a week regardless of whether you see a doctor, get a prescription, do nothing, see a witch doctor, book a session of acupuncture or take an antibiotic.
This is a universal truth known amongst healthcare workers, however we can’t convince people to do what we do when we have an ailment, give it a week and see what happens. If it goes great, if not seek professional advice. Sometimes we can’t even convince ourselves, as my example earlier showed.
I believe the reason is that drug companies persuade the population that need treatment for illnesses ASAP. This wastes loads of resources and is a major factor, although not the only one, in the alarming development of antibiotic resistance. We need to change this culture before events like the black death go from being a possibility to being a probability.
Therefore, I believe we need to ban drug companies from marketing and advertising their products.
Peter Kelly is a pharmacist based in London. He recently started a public health campaign, ‘5 Simple Steps to Healthy Living.’ He runs healthy living workshops in London Colleges with his friend and qualified personal trainer Shea Jozana, you can follow their progress on the Facebook page: The friendly pharmacist