The Australian government will seek to curb Australia’s overprescription and overuse of antibiotics in both humans and animals as part of a national plan aimed at preventing potentially deadly diseases becoming resistant to treatment.
Launching Australia’s first strategy for tackling antibiotic resistance on Tuesday, the health minister, Sussan Ley, said more than 29m prescriptions for antibiotics were subsidised by the government in 2013, with the drugs reaching 45% of the population.
It made Australia’s consumption of antibiotics among the highest in the world, she said. Despite this, Australia has never had a national strategy for tackling antimicrobial resistance until now.
“The over- and misuse of antibiotics has been identified as a significant contributor to the emergence of resistant bacteria,” Ley said.
“Antibiotics and other antimicrobial medicines are a precious resource and this strategy is not about removing access, but about providing guidance to use them in the safest and most effective way.”
Ley said 65% of Australians believed antibiotics would help them recover from a cold or flu virus, despite the drugs only being useful to treat bacterial infections.
Results from an Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care study, released in November, found more than 30% of antibiotic prescriptions in 2013 were inappropriate.
The national strategy also said there was increasing evidence that antibiotic use in agriculture was contributing to resistance rates. However, the strategy acknowledged there was also a lack of monitoring and data in this area.
Ensuring nationally consistent prescription guidelines were developed and followed in human and animal healthcare would be essential, the strategy said.
An infectious disease expert with the Australian National University’s department of medicine, Professor Peter Collignon, said it was important that the strategy was addressing inconsistent monitoring of resistant diseases.
While hospitals and aged-care settings were fairly strong at tracking the spread of resistant bugs, he said this monitoring needed to happen more broadly.
“Australia has been very good at stopping the spread and development of these bugs thanks to strong hygiene and infection control in hospitals, and through things like vaccines.
“But it is very important we have a national and also international strategy … in countries where control of superbugs is less stringent, because people get on to aeroplanes and go between countries.”
At the World Health Organisation assembly held in Geneva last week, a global action plan to tackle antimicrobial resistance, including antibiotic resistance, was endorsed.
“Antimicrobial resistance is occurring everywhere in the world, compromising our ability to treat infectious diseases, as well as undermining many other advances in health and medicine,” a statement issued by the organisation said.
Professor Jonathan Iredell, an infectious diseases physician who specialises in the transmission of antibiotic resistance, said Australia’s national antimicrobial strategy would also mean funding for the sector was more secure.
“We have been regularly surveying for antimicrobial resistance for many years, and we’ve been doing that without specific funding other than well-intended industry support done on a goodwill basis in hospitals,” Iredell, from the University of Sydney, said.
“Now this surveillance will be more formally and directly funded, and now the government has really come on board and addressed it we have a really sensible approach going forward.”
The chief executive of not-for-profit health information service NPS MedicineWise, Dr Lynn Weekes, said the strategy was important to community public health.
She urged people to reconsider their antibiotic use.
“Australians must understand that antibiotics will not work for viruses like colds and flu or for all types of infections,” she said.
“They are effective for some bacterial infections, but there are misconceptions in the community that antibiotics will work for most illnesses and this is simply not the case.”