The Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care (the Commission) report “AURA 2023: Fifth Australian report on antimicrobial use and resistance in human health” reveals Australia’s antibiotic use ranks among the highest globally despite recent declines. It also highlights the urgent threat of antimicrobial resistance from misuse and overprescribing antibiotics.
Each year, resistant infections cause hundreds of deaths in Australia. Without action, antimicrobial resistance could cause up to 10 million annual deaths worldwide by 2050 according to the WHO.
The Commission Senior Medical Advisor Professor John Turnidge said that we need sustained changes in the coming years to preserve the value and potency of antibiotics. “COVID-19 had a major impact, as it was the first time the slow downward trend in antimicrobial prescribing was significantly accelerated with the help of GPs, who did not prescribe as many antibiotics.
“We have an opportunity to build on this achievement to tackle one of the most serious health challenges of our time.”
In 2021, 21.8 million antibiotic prescriptions were filled in Australia, down from 26.6 million in 2017. However, antibiotic use remains substantially higher than in many comparable countries.
Total community antibiotic consumption has dropped 18% since 2019, with a 25% plunge in 2020-2021 partly attributable to COVID-19 restrictions cutting respiratory infections. But use rose again by 10% in 2022.
“Let’s all think twice before automatically using antibiotics – or having them ‘just in case’,” Professor Turnidge advised. “If we don’t, in the future we may not be able to perform medical procedures such as organ transplants, cancer chemotherapy, diabetes management and major surgery. That is a bleak future that none of us wish to contemplate.”
The Commission Senior Medical Advisor Professor Peter Collignon also warned of harm from antibiotic overuse and emphasised hygiene, infection control and avoiding unnecessary prescriptions.
“Ultimately, the benefits must outweigh the side effects. For a serious infection such as meningitis, pneumonia or sepsis, you will need antibiotics to stay alive and your doctor will help you navigate this. Yet for many people dealing with non-serious illnesses, this is not the case,” he said. “We will all be better off if we continue good hygiene habits established during COVID-19, such as washing our hands and not mingling with others when we are sick.”
While resistance rates for many bacteria are stable, the report flags emerging concerns like community-acquired MRSA and growing resistance to last-resort drugs called carbapenems. Resistant organisms pose alarming risks, especially for serious infections without effective antibiotic options left.
“Antibiotics can save your life, so we should preserve them to treat life-threatening conditions – but we must not forget that they can also cause significant harm,” Professor Turnidge said.
Next week is World AMR Awareness Week, 18–25 November. There is no better time to remind people of the risk of overusing antibiotics and the importance of good hygiene habits to prevent infections.