Health secretary Matt Hancock recently proclaimed that drug-resistant superbugs are as big a threat to mankind as climate change.
On the back of this, the government has unveiled an ambitious new plan to tackle the problem.
The overall objective is to assume control of antimicrobial resistance – a term that covers drug resistance in bacteria, viruses, parasites and other infections – by 2040, and reduce the use of antibiotics in humans by 15% over the next five years.
Excess consumption of medicine is a year-round problem, however, and new research by analytics firm Exasol has drawn links between extreme weather and the overprescribing of antibiotics.
Despite an encouraging year-on-year decline in prescription rates in the UK, the study found that during ‘the big freeze of 2018’, antibiotic prescription rates soared to 46% above the summer prescribing rate. Similar results were found for other harsh winters, too.
And while many of these prescriptions were legitimately needed, it is believed that many GPs were inappropriately prescribing antibiotics for standard winter viruses and colds for which they give no benefit.
The team at Exasol argued that even though cold weather tends to increase our risk of catching viruses, it has “far less of an effect” on bacterial infections.
Researchers added: “We would not expect a significant increase in antibiotic prescribing during exceptionally cold weather.”
Professor Colin Garner, chief executive of Antibiotic Research UK, went further, stating: “We have known for some years that there is a peak in antibiotic prescribing by GPs in the winter.
“It is interesting to see that more antibiotics are prescribed in very cold winters rather than milder ones.
“The National Institute for Health & Care Excellence (NICE) estimates that around 15-20% of antibiotics prescribed by GPs are unnecessary, and indeed may be harmful to patients.
“It is worrying that GPs are still prescribing antibiotics for coughs, colds and sore throats when all the medical evidence is that most of these conditions will get better on their own.”
On top of educating doctors about these risks, the government has promised to target the pharmaceutical companies themselves.
Officials say there has been a “market failure” in which firms are rewarded for selling existing antibiotics, rather than innovating and developing new treatments.
By changing this model where companies are paid based on how valuable medicines are to the NHS, the government hopes firms will start to invest in the development of new, high-priority drugs.
London is already leading the charge in the UK, having cut prescriptions by 18% in the past five years, compared to the national average fall of 11%. But this remains a complex problem that will take time to fix.
Doctors need to be better trained, pharmaceutical companies need to be incentivised to create better drugs, and patients need to do their best to avoid taking antibiotics whenever possible.
If not, the UK will only see more and more deaths come about as a result of creating antibiotic-resistant superbugs.