By: Sharon Brennan

The first ever antibiotic awareness week comes at a time when we seem to be finally beginning to recognise the disaster that antibiotic resistance is threatening.

As someone who was born with cystic fibrosis and was lucky enough to receive a double lung transplant in 2013, I know the fear of antibiotic resistance only too well. I have been hospitalised many times with such severe chest infections as a result of my genetic illness that they were resistant to one or more of the regular antibiotics I would use. Eventually my doctors were able to patch me up enough that I could leave hospital, but the scarring it caused my lungs was irreversible, and since the age of nine I lived with a permanent infection in my old lungs that modern antibiotics couldn’t touch. I have no doubt that drug resistance meant I needed a transplant earlier in life than I would have done.

If my new transplanted lungs become infected with bacteria that can’t be treated, then it will pretty much be game over. I won’t be able to fight it by myself, and antibiotics will have failed me. This may sound like a remote possibility, but in fact I have already lost four friends who survived the trauma of a transplant, only to succumb to infection soon after.

And perhaps we are the lucky ones. Within the cystic fibrosis community there are many people who struggle on, day in day out, with appallingly bad infections – the ultimate superbugs if you like – which make them ineligible for a transplant at all.

It is unsurprising that the Cystic Fibrosis Trusthas issued a “life or death warning” around antibiotic resistance for those living with CF. Keith Brownlee, director of impact at the trust, said: “As bugs become resistant to standard antibiotics, doctors are forced to prescribe older and rarely used antibiotics which are less effective and have serious side-effects. The effect, for people living with this condition, could be devastating.”

But don’t be fooled into thinking people with a long-term illness are an unfortunate but unique population. We are the vanguards for how antibiotic resistance will play out if we don’t take the threat of antibiotic resistance seriously. The ghost of Christmas futures if you like.

There are increasingly cases of drug-resistant sexually transmitted infections and growing numbers of people with such severe urinary tract infections that they must be treated with antibiotics that medics refer to as the “last resort” of medication. Even treatments that we’ve come to see as routine – caesareans, hip operations and chemotherapy for cancer – are under threat, as their success is underpinned by antibiotics. Recent research found that over a quarter of infections following blood cancer chemotherapy were resistant to standard antibiotics. As we are beginning to rely more and more on last resort antibiotics, we face a world in which our medical advances will go into reverse once bacteria become resistant to those medicines.

Everyone can play their part. We need as a country to look into developing a sustainable pipeline of new antibiotics, and resolve the funding problems that currently hinders it. We also need to look at the overuse of antibiotics within farming too.

We can also do a lot to help by not demanding antibiotics from our GP when in fact we are just feeling rough from a viral cold (antibiotics are only effective against bacteria), making sure we finish the whole drug course when we do take them, and by never lending them to anyone else. Even simple things like regularly washing our hands can help prevent the need for antibiotics. These are small measures that cost little to implement but rely on our society understanding that the threat of dying from infections is very real.

Through antibiotics, myself and many other people have been able to live our lives with a hope of getting better. As drug resistance increases, we must wake up to the fact that without antibiotics, that hope will be taken away.

Originally Published: The Guardian