”I’m sorry, but the treatment’s not working.’ “These are the words that nobody wants to hear. Especially if you are the parent of a sick child. Yet increasingly, there is a real concern that we might have to start using them. In fact, some of us already have,” writes Dr Ranj Singh, an emergency paediatrician in the United Kingdom, in a report on antimicrobial resistance during COVID-19.
Superbugs claim the lives of 700,000 people worldwide every year. As more drugs stop working, more lives will be in danger. By 2050, an anticipated 10 million lives will be lost as a result of a resistant infection, says Nesta Challenges, the UK outfit that produced the report.
Published on 24 November 2020 during World Antimicrobial Awareness Week, the report argues that it is time for antimicrobial resistance (AMR) to be treated as a public emergency.
Nesta Challenges designs and runs challenge prizes that help to solve pressing problems, and is home to the Longitude Prize, an £8 million prize to accelerate the development of a point-of-care diagnostic test that will conserve antibiotics for future generations.
It says AMR VOICES: Stories from the frontlines of antimicrobial resistance during COVID-19 “is a warning shot that without action on the slow-moving pandemic of AMR, more lives will be lost and the fundamentals of modern medicine will break down”.
The report is described as a collection of case studies amplifying the voices of patients and doctors on the frontlines of AMR during COVID-19, and asks whether humanity is lurching from one pandemic to another. One of the patients is Vanessa Carter from South Africa.
“From the frontlines of the pandemic in the UK, United States, South Africa and India, AMR Voices provides a first-hand look at how the real-life experience and challenges of AMR collide with the realities of COVID-19,” says Nesta Challenges.
It provides a platform for people with drug-resistant infections and medical professionals “working to save lives and combat AMR as a slow-moving pandemic”. Advocates from the US and South Africa call for more education and better response strategies from government leaders, while contributors from the UK fear running out of medical treatment options.
“One contributor’s experience tells us that just as patients have had to think twice about visiting a hospital this year to avoid the risk of contracting COVID-19, people are also acting the same way to avoid drug-resistant bacterial infections.”
Accelerated by the misuse and overuse of antibiotics, drug-resistant bacteria – or 'superbugs' – are multiplying rapidly, according to the report. Common bacteria are developing resistance to drugs. Too few new antibacterial treatments are in development, rapid diagnostics are still not funded at an effective scale and pace, and antibiotic stewardship is faltering as a result.
Below is one of the case studies, from a medical professional.
When the drugs don’t work
Dr Ranj Singh, a National Health Service (NHS) Emergency Paediatrician and TV Presenter in the United Kingdom.
“I’m sorry, but the treatment’s not working.” These are the words that nobody wants to hear. Especially if you are the parent of a sick child. Yet increasingly, there is a real concern that we might have to start using them. In fact, some of us already have.”
I work in Emergency Paediatrics. Infections are probably the commonest thing we see. There’s a naïve sense of security in all of us that, no matter what, we will always be able to treat whatever infection it is. Meningitis, cellulitis, pneumonia, urine infections, even sepsis.
We think we will always have something to use. Parents and carers think the same. There’s no way that they’ve considered that their child might have a resistant infection. They either believe their child needs antibiotics (sometimes they expect them!), or they trust that whatever the cause we will have a treatment.
Fortunately we’ve all made some progress in dealing with the former. Various education campaigns have taught people that most infections don’t need antibiotics at all. This isn’t just a success for the public.
Healthcare staff are changing their practice too and not resorting to the ‘have some just in case’ approach, which many of us have been guilty of.
However, the message about the latter still hasn’t completely sunk in. When I started medicine 20 years ago, there was always a stronger antibiotic we could use if something didn’t work. We prescribed them like smarties. Now, I think twice before even starting them because I don’t want to contribute to the growing issue of antibiotic resistance.
I don’t ever want to tell a parent that we’ve run out of options. And I don’t want to live in a world where we have to routinely accept that there may be infections we just can’t treat.
Luckily we don’t see a huge amount of problematic antibiotic resistance in children in the UK. Often it’s picked up incidentally (for example, we routinely screen patients on admission or if they are in intensive care units).
If picked up, we have systems to isolate, reduce risk and mitigate. But this may not always be the case, and we have to constantly remind ourselves to be vigilant in treating significant infections, yet at the same time, be mindful of over-treating and adding to the problem.
Unfortunately, deciding when antibiotics are required has never been easy – especially in children. The signs are harder to interpret, we can’t do lots of invasive and unpleasant tests because that’s not fair, plus we don’t want to take chances. It’s even more tricky during a pandemic. We’ve seen patients come in really sick with COVID-19, but equally, it could be sepsis due to a bacterial agent. Or, rarely, it could even be both.
The situation is further made complicated by children’s physiology. Interestingly, most children who get COVID-19 won’t get extremely unwell (which differs from older adults). So if they are really poorly, it’s probably not COVID-19 at all.
So we’ve tried to adapt by reinforcing guidelines (NICE) have great guidelines on the management of fever in kids and when to think about antibiotics), routinely calling parents to check on progress at home after discharge and then reassessing if needed (rather than giving that ‘just in case’ script), as well as improving our own diagnostic systems.
Our department invested in point-of-care testing to get rapid blood results to help us differentiate the benign viral illness from the potentially serious bacterial infection. Our hospital laboratories also upped their testing capacity and capability.
I like to think we’ve done a reasonably good job, but that’s because I work in a Trust that has the means and resources to do so. Sadly this isn’t the case across all of the NHS.
At the same time, I’ve continued to use whatever platform I have to spread awareness amongst the general public. I worked on a campaign around AMR with Public Health
England a few years back. The same messages still apply and I continue to dish out that advice: not everything needs them, don’t use them unless advised or essential, and let’s preserve them for as long as we can.
Sadly these messages seem to have gotten lost during the pandemic. The focus worldwide on COVID-19 means that other infectious agents don’t get as much press or headspace right now. So we either run the risk of missing important infections, or treating inappropriately.
Let’s be honest, more children will likely die from other infections than COVID-19 in 2020 (yes, that’s a bit of a simplified look, but the figures are true). But they’re still there and we need to be mindful we don’t forget them, whilst not slipping into bad habits again.
Maybe it’s time for a renewed focus on non-COVID-19 infections. Perhaps it’s time for more public health campaigns to remind us. However, these have to be balanced with guidance for everyone on when antibiotics are the right choice.
In a COVID-19-dominated world, if a virus is responsible for us all making better antibiotic choices, then at least something good might just come out of all of this.
AMR VOICES: Stories from the frontlines of antimicrobial resistance during COVID-19
The Longitude Prize