Antimicrobials: handle with care

Antimicrobials are a precious resource. Whilst antimicrobials have the potential to treat infections, the misuse of antimicrobials can contribute to a worldwide problem of antimicrobial resistance.

Antimicrobials can kill or slow the spread of microorganisms such as bacteria and viruses but antimicrobial resistance happens when pathogens, usually bacteria, stop an antibiotic from working effectively – meaning some infections may become difficult or impossible to treat. 

This week is Antimicrobial Awareness Week (18 November – 24 November) and is an opportunity to raise awareness of antimicrobial resistance and its potential impact on the healthcare system. 

Infectious Diseases Specialist from Sydney Children’s Hospital, Randwick, Dr Brendan McMullan says, “The overuse of antibiotics and other anti-infective drugs is driving a global increase in drug-resistant infections and currently at least 700,000 people die each year due to drug-resistant diseases”.

Clinical Academic in Infectious Diseases and Microbiology from The Children’s Hospital at Westmead, Dr Ameneh Khatami, has been researching and working on phage therapy for the last two years as an alternative to help fight against antimicrobial resistance. 

“Bacteriophages or ‘phages’ are naturally occurring viruses that selectively infect bacteria and can kill them. We can use phages to treat infections caused by bacteria, which is what phage therapy refers to,” Dr Khatami said.

In October 2019, Dr Khatami was part of a team who were able to access phage therapy to treat a patient with a long-standing and highly antibiotic-resistant bacteria. It was the first time phages had been used to treat a child in Australia and demonstrated phage therapy to be safe and feasible for paediatric patients. 

As antimicrobial resistance continues to rise as a global healthcare problem, Dr Khatami believes phages could be used in addition to antibiotics to help improve their effectiveness, but they could also be used in lieu of antibiotics when they fail.

“Myself, and other colleagues across SCHN, the Westmead Institute for Medical Research and Westmead Hospital - as well as collaborators from around Australia and internationally - are working together to develop phage therapy as an option for treatment of difficult-to-treat infections in a systematic and equitable way for all Australians,” Dr Khatami said.

Dr McMullan offers the below tips that we can do right now to ensure safe and effective use of antibiotics to help manage antimicrobial resistance:

  • Make sure to only take antimicrobials when needed (antibiotics won’t help fight that cold but they will contribute to antimicrobial resistance!).
  • Follow the instructions from your doctor and pharmacist – these drugs work best when taken correctly.
  • Don’t share these medicines with others or keep unused medicines around ‘just in case’.
  • Get educated! Our hospitals and many other organisations have information on resistant organisms and how to prevent and manage them as well as on antimicrobials. Read more here and here 

Antimicrobial Awareness Week is led by the World Health Organization. To find out more information or additional resources, head to their website.