Superbug threat misunderstood, WHO says

People across the world are confused about the major threat to public health posed by drug-resistant superbugs and do not know how to stop that risk growing, the World Health Organization says.

'Rise of antibiotic resistance is a global health crisis,' says Margaret Chan

The survey findings point to the urgent need to improve understanding around antibiotic resistance, said Keiji Fukuda, right, Assistant Director-General of WHO. Margaret Chan, left, General Director of WHO, says resistance is reaching dangerously high levels. (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone/Associated Press)
  People across the world are confused about the major threat to public health posed by drug-resistant superbugs and do not know how to stop that risk growing, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Monday.

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.

WHO warns of widespread misunderstanding of superbug threat

  Around a third of people surveyed also wrongly believed they should stop taking antibiotics when they feel better, rather than completing the prescribed treatment course, the WHO said.

"The findings … point to the urgent need to improve understanding around antibiotic resistance," said Keiji Fukuda, the WHO's special representative for antimicrobial resistance.

  "One of the biggest health challenges of the 21st century will require global behaviour change by individuals and 

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.

  Superbug infections — including multi-drug-resistant forms of tuberculosis, typhoid and gonorrhoea — kill hundreds of 
  thousands of people a year, and the trend is growing.       

"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."

  The WHO surveyed 10,000 people across 12 countries — Barbados, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria, 
  Russia, Serbia, South Africa, Sudan and Vietnam — and found many worrying misconceptions.

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.

  Some 66 per cent believe individuals are not at risk of a drug-resistant infection if they personally take their antibiotics as prescribed.

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. 


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?