Antibiotic Glut Sparks Global Health Fears

It won't help the common cold, but it can kill you, study finds.

What you need to know
  • The increasing number of antibiotics bought over-the-counter is "alarming" new study found
  • Countries like Brazil and Thailand among the worst offenders
  • Australia is one of the highest consumers of antibiotics in western world
  • "Whatever happens around the world matters here in Australia," researcher told ten daily

Antibiotics are the most frequently prescribed medicine worldwide, and there are well-documented concerns about Australian doctors too readily handing them out.

A new global study has found another cause for alarm, with data capturing the growing number of antibiotics accessed without a prescription.

This increases the potential for 'superbugs' to develop and spread, experts said, which are resistant to antibiotics. It's estimated 700,000 people globally die a year because antibiotics didn't work to treat infections.

Queensland University of Technology's public health researcher Emmanuel Adewuyi worked with academics from the U.K., U.S. and Nigeria on this new research.

“Studies from 24 countries were analysed and to our alarm, we discovered that antibiotics are frequently supplied without prescription in many countries," Adewuyi said.

The team of researchers found a big increase in the consumption of antibiotics in Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

New research concluded there is an urgent need for better enforcement of laws so antibiotics aren't accessed without a prescription.

"Antibiotics are commonly used without prescriptions in places like Spain, Greece and Mexico," he said.

According to the study, in South America, 78 percent of antibiotics are accessed without a prescription. Adewuyi told ten daily this is "very high and a real worry."

Between 2000 and 2010, consumption of antibiotics increased globally from 50 billion to 70 billion standard units. This global increase is attributed in part to economic growth, but also due to the ease of access to antibiotics. 

Antibiotic resistance is on the rise worldwide, and a range of infections, including tuberculosis, pneumonia and gonorrhea are becoming more difficult to treat.

In Australia, you need a prescription from a doctor to access this medication. Yet Australia is still one of the highest consumers of antibiotics in the industrialised world.

A 2017 study published in the Medical Journal of Australia, found over two million antibiotics are unnecessarily prescribed each year to Australians suffering ailments like the common cold.

Antibiotic use is highest in children under the age of nine, and  people aged 65 and over.

Two million antibiotics are year are needlessly given to Australians to treat things like the common cold. Image: Getty.

While regulations differ in Australia, Adewuyi said we are not immune to the effects of the ease of access to antibiotics abroad.

'Whatever happens around the world matters here in Australia. Infectious disease can easily spread and it doesn't matter which side of the globe it is happening on," he said.

If its Brazil or Thailand, it can be passed from one person to another or country to country and is a serious health concern."

Adewuyi said of the two dozen countries included in the study, only Thailand didn't classify antibiotics as a prescription-only drug.

More than half a million Aussies visit Thailand each year, and Adewuyi said that's ample opportunity for superbugs to spread.

Enterococcus faecalis, which lives in the human gut.  Overall 50% of bacterium in Australia are resistant to the antibiotic ampicillin.  Image: Getty Images

In recent months, the Federal Government introduced measures to curb the use of antibiotics.

Public health experts said more is needed to be done to limit the unrestrained use of antibiotics and to monitor superbugs coming into Australia from travellers or imported food.