Ramping up its fight against antibiotic resistance with a survey of public awareness, the United Nations health agency said 64 per cent of those asked believed wrongly that penicillin-based drugs and other antibiotics can treat colds and flu, despite the fact such medicines have no impact on viruses.
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"The findings … point to the urgent need to improve understanding around antibiotic resistance," said Keiji Fukuda, the WHO's special representative for antimicrobial resistance.
Antibiotic resistance happens when bacteria mutate and adapt to become resistant to the antibiotics used to treat the infections they cause. Over-use and misuse of antibiotics exacerbate the development of drug resistant bacteria, often called superbugs.
"The rise of antibiotic resistance is a global health crisis," the WHO's director-general Margaret Chan said in a statement. "It is reaching dangerously high levels in all parts of the world."
Three quarters of respondents think antibiotic resistance means the body is resistant to the drugs, for example, whereas in fact it is the bacteria themselves that become resistant to antibiotics and their spread causes hard-to-treat infections.
And nearly half of those surveyed think drug resistance is only a problem in people who take antibiotics often. In fact, anyone, anywhere, of any age, can get a superbug infection.