The Pandemic Within the Pandemic

BY: Loice Achieng Ombajo –

Fear of COVID-19 is driving increased over-the-counter (OTC) sales and in-hospital prescriptions of antibiotics – and fueling a silent pandemic in its wake.

Globally, antibiotic use in hospitals has surged since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even though studies show that only 8% of patients admitted to hospital with COVID-19 also have an infection requiring antibiotics, more than 70% receive them. In addition, many people worried about possible or actual COVID-19 symptoms, and alarmed by global reports about the pandemic, have turned to buying antibiotics without seeing a health-care worker.

This is further fueling the global crisis of antibiotic resistance, as bacteria evolve and become immune to these drugs. We must move quickly – with international policy, national laws, and local action – to control what the World Health Organization has identified as one of the ten leading health threats to humanity.

Antibiotics treat infections caused by bacteria, and have no impact on a virus such as SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19. Overusing them merely accelerates the emergence of antibiotic resistance, which will undercut our ability to treat common diseases. Simple infections such as pneumonia or urinary tract infections, which currently can be quickly cleared by common antibiotics, may prove impossible to treat and become deadly.

This is particularly true in many African, South American, and Asian countries, where access to health-care workers is limited and there are no restrictions on antibiotic sales. In India, antibiotic sales have risen astronomically in recent years, largely driven by unregulated OTC purchases, including of unapproved drugs. Likewise, in Kenya, all antibiotics can be purchased without a prescription.

Bacteria that develop resistance to multiple antibiotics are responsible for causing difficult-to-treat infections, which are up to three times more likely to kill people than infections caused by non-resistant bacteria. And data from several countries – including China and Egypt – indicate that up to 50% of bacteria-causing infections in critical-care units are resistant to several antibiotics. In the United States, it is estimated that close to three million people get an antibiotic-resistant infection each year, leading to more than 35,000 deaths annually.