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An antibiotic crisis is coming - and we're all responsible for fighting it

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A few years ago I took my son to a walk-in centre with a bad cut on his knee. We walked into a consulting room and the nurse washed his hands, put on some gloves and started examining the wound. The telephone rang, he answered it with his gloves still on and then returned to my son’s knee. 

When I asked him to remove his gloves and wash his hands, he looked embarrassed. He realised that, busy and distracted, he had forgotten the essentials of infection prevention and was mortified.

Earlier this month we woke up to the news that that a “post-antibiotic apocalypse” could be a reality in 20 years’ time. The chief medical officer for England, Dame Sally Davies, gave a stark warning that, in the future, even minor surgery could lead to life-threatening infection unless we take action to prescribe less antimicrobials.

We urgently need to look for global solutions to this problem, but each of us can also contribute every day to this fight against antimicrobial resistance (AMR).

“We are lucky that we now have the underpinning knowledge to support our infection prevention interventions”

There is a lot of work taking place in NHS organisations to improve antibiotic stewardship. This week, Nursing Times reported on a major national campaign from Public Health England, Keep Antibiotics Working, which encourages the public to take health professionals’ advice on antibiotic use. Nurses and midwives have an important role to play in its success.

Alongside these initiatives, nurses also have a key role in breaking the chain of infection and preventing infections occurring in the first place so that there is no need for antibiotics – hand hygiene is critical to this.

We have known about the importance of hand hygiene in infection prevention since the pre-antibiotic era of the 1840s, when a Hungarian doctor, Ignaz Semmelweis, noted that infection rates fell dramatically when doctors washed their hands before attending women during childbirth.

Florence Nightingale, a champion of hand hygiene, went on to identify the same benefits in her hospital in Scutari.

We are lucky that we now have the underpinning knowledge to support our infection prevention interventions.

”I shudder to contemplate the consequences if my son had developed a healthcare-associated wound infection and there were no antibiotics to cure it”

With this, every health professional who comes into contact with a patient can make a personal contribution to tackling AMR by always using excellent hand hygiene techniques.

There is clear guidance on hand hygiene and on the use of personal protective equipment, and we all need to have the confidence to challenge others if we feel their practice is substandard and endangering patient safety.

We need to protect the antimicrobials we have for future generations and every health professional has opportunities every day to contribute to the solution.

Thinking back to that day at the walk-in centre, I shudder to contemplate the consequences if my son had developed a healthcare-associated wound infection and there were no antibiotics to cure it.

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