The Department of Health (DoH) launched a new campaign last week,
aimed at curbing the increase in antibiotic resistant bacteria.
Antibiotics have revolutionised medical care in the 20th century - about
50 million prescriptions are issued each year in the UK alone - however,
the emergence of bacteria with immunity to these drugs (’superbugs’) is
threatening to destroy this advance within the next 25 years. It is
widely accepted that the superbug is a result of irrational prescribing
It is estimated that up to 75 per cent of antibiotic use is of
questionable therapeutic value.
Initially, the DoH’s campaign will target medical professionals.
Ministers have agreed in principle to the need for a patient awareness
campaign, but as yet there is no indication of the form this is likely
Not surprisingly, press attention so far has concentrated on slapdash
prescribing habits by GPs. Little attention has been given to the fact
that patients are in some ways also to blame for expecting anti-biotics
for almost every ailment. And many patients fail to complete the full
course, which means that the ailment fails to clear up and bacteria are
able to develop a resistance.
The majority of doctors are already well aware of the statistics linking
irrational antibiotic prescribing and microbial resistance. The new DoH
guidelines should prove extremely useful and the British Medical
Association and Royal College of General Practitioners have certainly
But if the problem lies in patient expectations, as some GPs suggest,
why then hasn’t the Government commenced implementation of an effective
patient education campaign?
Bacterial resistance to anti-biotics has received wide-spread media
coverage, so patients should be receptive to the message that the DoH
will want to convey. As with most educational campaigns, the success
lies mainly in the timing. The Government must act before the
credibility of doctors is further undermined by scare-mongering in the
media. Like the Millennium bug, the antibiotic resistance crisis is a
The UK campaign cannot hope to solve the entire problem alone. The DoH
estimates that the misuse of antibiotics wastes pounds 34 million of NHS
funds each year. So, apart from the timing being right for a campaign,
there is the added incentive of what could be a quite significant
reduction in the hugely expensive NHS prescription bill.
The arguments for the Government to act now are strong, and in many ways
are a test of the DoH’s understanding of PR. Let’s hope they do not
leave it too late to act.