The bacterium Salmonella typhi (pictured) causes typhoid fever, which can be spread through contact with infected faeces via food and water.

The bacterium Salmonella typhi (pictured) causes typhoid fever, which can be spread through contact with infected faeces via food and water.

More than two thirds of South Africans surveyed think that antibiotics should be prescribed to treat colds and flu, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) which is raising the profile of drug-resistance during World Antibiotic Awareness Week from November 14 to 20.

Resistance to antibiotics, which develops when the medicines are misused or overused, “is one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today”, the WHO said. These ‘superbugs’ threaten to undermine the advances of modern medicine and the WHO warned that we could enter a ‘post-antibiotic era’ where minor injuries and common infections once again have the potential to kill.

Overuse of antibiotics

In a 12-country report published by the WHO last year, only 28 percent of surveyed South Africans correctly responded ‘No’ to the question: Can colds and flu be treated with antibiotics?

Colds are caused by viruses while antibiotics are only effective against infections caused by bacteria.

According to Shirley Leadbeater from the private hospital network Life Healthcare Group antibiotics are among the most misused of all medicines globally.

“All parties – the patient, the doctor and the entire multifunctional team should be aware of how their behaviour impacts this growing threat and how we can work together to prevent antibiotic resistance from spiralling out of control,” she said in a statement.

Implementing the national strategy

In 2014, South Africa became a regional leader in preventing the spread of resistance when the Department of Health (DOH) launched its Antimicrobial Resistance National Strategy Framework 2014 – 2024.

Antimicrobial resistance is a broader definition involving resistance to drugs used to treat infections caused by other ‘microbes’ including viruses, fungi and parasites.

“But quite often South Africa has excellent policies and falls flat when it comes to implementation,” said the DOH’s Gavin Steel, speaking at a conference about the issue being held at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) in Johannesburg this week.

He said the DOH has been working to avoid this by proactively engaging provincial health departments and developing localised action plans.

Awareness needed to prevent deaths

A report commissioned by the United Kingdom government earlier this year estimated that globally at least 700 000 people die each year from drug-resistant infections. If nothing is done, it projected that by 2050 antimicrobial resistance will cause the deaths of 10 million people every year – overtaking cancer.

While South Africa is taking action, one of the biggest challenges globally is increasing the low levels of knowledge and awareness on the issue, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation’s Patrick Otto, who spoke from the NICD on Thursday.

“We need to provide accurate information to allow the public to make informed choices. Increasing awareness efforts is a challenge all countries will face.”  – Health-e News.

What can I do? Five tips for the public

Countries need to develop policies regulating the use of antibiotics in humans and animals but individuals also have a responsibility to protect themselves. To reduce your risk of developing a fatal drug-resistant infection here are some simple things you can do:

  1. Only use antibiotics when prescribed by a health professional.
  2. Always finish the course of drugs, even if you feel better.
  3. Never use left-over antibiotics.
  4. Don’t share your antibiotics with others.
  5. Prevent infections by regularly washing your hands, avoiding close contact with sick people and keeping up to date with your vaccinations.

Source: World Health Organisation

An edited version of this story was published on