What is antimicrobial resistance?

Online Q&A
July 2017

Q: What is antimicrobial resistance?

A: Antimicrobial resistance occurs when microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites change in ways that render the medications used to cure the infections they cause ineffective. When the microorganisms become resistant to most antimicrobials they are often referred to as “superbugs”. This is a major concern because a resistant infection may kill, can spread to others, and imposes huge costs to individuals and society.

Antimicrobial resistance is the broader term for resistance in different types of microorganisms and encompasses resistance to antibacterial, antiviral, antiparasitic and antifungal drugs.

Antimicrobial resistance occurs naturally but is facilitated by the inappropriate use of medicines, for example using antibiotics for viral infections such as cold or flu, or sharing antibiotics. Low-quality medicines, wrong prescriptions and poor infection prevention and control also encourage the development and spread of drug resistance. Lack of government commitment to address these issues, poor surveillance and a diminishing arsenal of tools to diagnose, treat and prevent also hinder the control of antimicrobial drug resistance.

Q: What is the difference between antibiotic and antimicrobial resistance?

A: Antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria change in response to the use of antibiotics used to treat bacterial infections (such as urinary tract infections, pneumonia, bloodstream infections) making them ineffective.

Antimicrobial resistance is a broader term, encompassing resistance to drugs that treat infections caused by other microbes as well, such as parasites (e.g. malaria or helminths), viruses (e.g. HIV) and fungi (e.g. Candida).

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