ABU DHABI // Work has begun on the first antibiotic resistance surveillance (ARS) system in Abu Dhabi. It aims to protect the population from developing immunity to the life-saving drugs.
With resistance to antibiotics on the increase worldwide and a decline in new medicines entering the market, it is essential to invest in such a system, said Dr Mansour Al Zarouni, a medical and molecular microbiologist and the head of laboratories at Sharjah Medical District.
"The development of new antibiotics has almost dried out," he said at a discussion panel on the penultimate day of the Abu Dhabi Medical Congress.
The time and cost in developing a new medicine can be up to 13 years and US$1 billion (Dh3.67bn), which has led to resistance from pharmaceutical companies, he said.
"What do we do? One way is to have proper surveillance of local data. Local surveillance is becoming extremely important," Dr Al Zarouni said.
Introduction of the ARS system began several months ago and it will be fully functional by the start of 2012, according to Dr Jens Thomsen, the section head of the public health and research department at Health Authority-Abu Dhabi (Haad). Once fully up and running, it will be mandatory for all 33 public and private hospitals in the capital.
The introduction of the surveillance system is "perfect", according to Dr Suaad Aljaberi, an infectious-disease specialist and the director of Abu Dhabi Police's medical laboratory, who attended the discussion.
"The system will discover the communities where public health is weak. It will discover if it is because of the pharmacy, the doctor, or the patient."
Without data, people will never be able to pinpoint problems in a community, Dr Aljaberi said.
"Data collection will improve health care because it will help us discover whether we are going backwards or forwards," she said.
Dr Thomsen said the roll-out of ARS had begun with Seha hospitals (those that fall under the administration of HAAD) because they share an IT system.
"It might be more challenging to get the private hospitals for technical reasons," he said.
The system has come up against other challenges too, including the continued over-the-counter sale of antibiotics.
A study carried out last year found 68 per cent of 510 antibiotic sales in Abu Dhabi pharmacies were done without prescriptions.
"It's certainly a problem. It's illegal, and Haad has issued a policy on the issue. They have to be sold with a prescription for a good reason," Dr Thomsen said.
Resistance to antibiotics increases if they are being used as frequently as someone might use paracetamol, he said.
Another concern voiced by doctors at yesterday's panel discussion was the lack of microbiologists in laboratories in the GCC region.
Some labs might only have a pathologist, but a trained microbiologist is required to interpret the data collected by an ARS, said Dr Thomsen.
Plans to implement the ARS system began after a study by UAE University found the deadly superbug Acinetobacter baumannii in Abu Dhabi hospitals.
The strain of bacteria, which has been found to be highly resistant to antibiotics, causes pneumonia and serious blood and wound infections and is especially dangerous for burn victims or anyone with a weakened immune system, chronic lung disease or diabetes.