School of Population Health

Are commonly prescribed antibiotics becoming ineffective in our community?


Antimicrobial resistance has been labelled by the World Health Organization as a global threat to human health and our researchers at UNSW’s School of Public Health are responding to calls for urgent action to prevent it.
Commonly prescribed antibiotics are becoming less effective in everyday populations over time.  The inappropriate prescription and use of antimicrobials, which are used to treat infections, means once treatable infections are becoming untreatable.  

A research project being run out of the School of Population Health (SPH) at UNSW uses untreated sewage in a novel and innovative way to map antimicrobial resistance across the general population of the Sydney Region.  

Pathogens are acquiring multiple resistances and the spread of resistance comes at a huge cost to individuals and society by rendering the most commonly prescribed antibiotics ineffective.   While antimicrobial resistance is extensively monitored in hospital patients, patterns and spread in the general population are not.

Led by the School’s Professor Mary-Louise McLaws, the project seeks to rectify this by taking samples from our sewage system and using them to identify the prevalence of antibiotic resistance in pathogens that most commonly are prescribed antibiotics.  

“People take antibiotics when they get a respiratory infection for example, and they want to be better instantly.  But society needs to understand that has a cost.”  (McLaws)

The first of its kind in Australia, the project utilises sewage for public health surveillance and aims to demonstrate that wastewater monitoring can be used effectively as a surveillance tool on a national level.  

Priority pathogens for the surveillance include those responsible for gastrointestinal/urinary tract, skin, respiratory and sexually transmissible infections.

“If they’re resistant, that rings alarm bells for prescribers, for GP’s and the Ministry and hopefully for the community to stop taking anti-biotics when they don’t need them.” (McLaws)

The team are developing an online system that uses graphics to translate complex collected data so that people can see the geographical problem areas immediately.  It can be used by GP’s, researchers, policy makers and potentially the general public to learn about changes in resistance patterns in order to inform decisions about whether commonly used drugs can be prescribed or if something else needs to be used.

The team is a cross-university partnership between UNSW and UQ and in collaboration with the Global Water Institute, the Centre for Biological Earth and Environmental Science, Built Environment and the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering at UNSW.