x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The hidden costs of antibiotics overuse

It will take planning and restraint and persistence to stop hospital superbugs.

Hospitals are, by their very nature, havens for germs. But when hospitals become laboratories for deadly bacteria resistant to drugs and difficult to control, anyone associated with the health care profession - in fact, anyone who benefits from it - has reason for concern. And that, as The National reported yesterday, is why doctors are urging action in a new bid to control the increased prevalence of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA.

According to research carried out at Tawam Hospital in Al Ain, the spread of this superbug doubled between 2003 and 2008, the most recent year data is available. The prevalence is potentially even higher four years on, and most likely to be repeated throughout hospitals in all seven emirates say health experts. While strains of the bacterium are present on skin and in the nostrils of healthy people, it becomes dangerous when introduced to open wounds. Hence, the concern for patients and hospitals.

So what to do? Nothing can eliminate the MRSA threat completely, and hospitals the world over suffer from it, but there are a number of procedures that can combat the problem. First and foremost, better hygienic practices among medical staff is the most obvious, and cheapest way to prevent a potentially deadly infection.

But there is also a less obvious factor contributing to seriousness of the issue here: over-prescription of antibiotics, which can lead to an increase in the resistance of certain strains of bacteria.

Patients and health care professionals, including doctors, often display a lack of understanding of how antibiotics work. Patients often leave the clinic with bags of drugs, even for common ailments like the flu. But sometimes, less in more. "This is actually why we are trying to control the prescription of antibiotics," said Dr Omniyat Al Hajeri, the director of public health and policy at the Health Authority-Abu Dhabi.

There is more at stake here than fewer pills or safer hospitals. Health chiefs in Abu Dhabi are struggling to cope with escalating medical costs in the capital as insurance providers complain of fraud, misuse and waste. Over-prescription is one place to trim.

Far more important is the cost in terms of health of the population. But when two priorities meld so neatly, solutions present themselves.