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Unexpected upside of the pandemic may help keep superbugs at bay


Antibiotic resistance is a global threat but the health restrictions imposed during the pandemic, and a drop in prescriptions, create an opportunity for the system to fight back.

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The Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care has today released a new report on the misuse of overuse of antibiotics, which makes infections harder to treat as drugs become less effective.

Between 2015 and 2050, more than 10,000 Australians are expected to die as a result of antimicrobial resistance. This is, in part, due to Australia having an antibiotic prescribing rate that is much higher than most of Europe and comparable countries like Canada.

Queensland has the second highest antibiotic prescribing rate in Australia.

Before the pandemic hit, Australia’s prescribing rate was coming down, but not as fast as experts like Professor John Turnidge would like.

“The gradual decline in prescribing since 2015 will need to be sustained in order to slow the spread of resistance,” said Turnidge, who is the Commission’s Senior Medical Advisor for the Antimicrobial Use And Human Health project.

The report shows, however, that various measures brought in during the pandemic have led to reduced use of antibiotics. It states that this “dramatic impact on dispensing rates” has also been reported overseas.

“During 2020, Australia experienced substantial decreases (between 22 per cent and 49 per cent) in dispensing for several antimicrobials, including amoxicillin, cefalexin and doxycycline,” the report states.

“This suggests a decrease in dispensing for seasonal respiratory infections, which coincided with pandemic control measures such as hand hygiene and physical distancing. It indicates that there are opportunities to intervene to sustain these lower levels of antimicrobial use for conditions for which antimicrobials are not generally recommended.

“The Commission will work with clinicians, state and territory governments, and the Australian Government to explore strategies to improve appropriateness of prescribing, particularly for upper respiratory tract infections, and sustain infection prevention and control activities.”

The opportunity for positive change comes amid concerns Australians with chronic and preventable conditions, or on waiting lists for non-emergency surgery, may see their health deteriorate during the pandemic.

Superbugs will remain a problem even after COVID-19 is brought under control.

The report warns that, for some superbugs, resistance was increasing, and this was especially a problem in aged care facilities and hospitals. There was also a ‘hot spot’ in far north Queensland.

The prescribing data does not include ‘private scripts’ without Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme subsidies so the Commission is asking the Commonwealth for more information.

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