Wednesday 13 November 2019

Microbiologist warns superbugs now one of greatest threats to human life

Microbiologist Dr Fidelma Fitzpatrick
Microbiologist Dr Fidelma Fitzpatrick

Sam Griffin

Antibiotic resistance remains one of the greatest potential threats to human health in the 21st century, a leading microbiologist has warned.

But Dr Fidelma Fitzpatrick, who is on a mission to educate the nation around antibiotic usage, says Irish attitudes are starting to change and people are better educating themselves.

Dr Fitzpatrick, who was previously the National Clinical Lead in the area of antimicrobial resistance, spoke to the Irish Independent after holding a public meeting entitled 'Have the superbugs won or can we still preserve antibiotics for the next generation?'

She said attitudes have changed considerably since a 2011 survey found one-in-three Irish people incorrectly thought antibiotics could cure viruses.

"I think the conversation about antibiotics is getting through because that survey we did was in 2011 and at that stage there were two main things we wanted to address," she said.

"The first was the false belief that antibiotics work on viruses, which they don't. The second thing was the equation that when you go to the GP, you feel the only way you're going to get value for money is through a prescription. I think if we survey again, we would get a very different picture now."

Dr Fitzpatrick also points to the fact that the rate of superbug MRSA had decreased dramatically in recent years as an indicator that antibiotic resistance is being taken more seriously.

"We've been postulating the reason MRSA has gone down is because there's been so much public attention and international focus over the last 10 years.

"We've seen a reduction in MRSA around the world. Looking at the latest reports form the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, I think it's down to under 20pc which is amazing when you think it was around 40pc in 2006," she said.

However, she also warned that antibiotic resistance continues to pose a major threat to human health.

"We ended the public meeting by referencing this UK report that tells us that if we did nothing by 2050, there would be 10 million extra deaths per year.

"There's the financial cost as well, with a 3.5pc reduction in gross domestic product, and there's also the human cost because if you get an antibiotic- resistant infection, you're going to spend more time in hospital meaning your work, children and home life can all suffer."

US president Barack Obama last year signed an executive order outlining what needs to be done at a policy level to effectively combat antibiotic resistance. Dr Fitzpatrick says the challenge now is to promote more research.

"In the past, when a bug became resistant to an antibiotic, we simply made a new prescription. However, no new prescriptions have been made since the year 2000.

"Now the worldwide community is working on how to incentivise the pharmaceutical industry to invest in research to produce new antibiotics and to develop better diagnostics."

She welcomes things like smartphone apps which can help doctors in prescribing medications but says the key message is that people can do a lot to fight antibiotic resistance on their own.

"The four messages for people are to get informed, finish prescribed antibiotic courses, keep healthy and also practical things like always covering your mouth when coughing and sneezing."

More information can be accessed at

Irish Independent

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News