A new scientific advisory panel is being set up to explain the dangers posed by infections that antibiotics can’t cure.
The move follows a national survey showing that half of all Swiss believe, wrongly, that alternative drugs are available, should antibiotics fail.
The survey – commissioned by the Swiss National Science Foundation - also found a high level of concern about superbugs. Eighty per cent of those questioned said they believed antibiotic-resistant infections posed a serious health risk.
The panel of experts was presented at a news conference in Bern on Wednesday, along with preliminary findings of the national research programme into antiobiotic resistance.
Doctors are concerned that antibiotics can lose their effectiveness over time, as strains of super-bacteria capable of surviving them develop.
"There are no effective alternatives to fighting serious bacterial infections like pneumonia, meningitis or septicaemia," warned Patrick Francioli, head doctor at the University Hospital of Vaud in Lausanne, and a member of the panel.
“In Switzerland we have fewer problems with germs that are resistant to antibiotics than most other countries,” said Kathrin Mühlemann, an expert in infectious diseases at the University of Bern. But she added that available data showed an increasing trend towards antibiotic resistance.
Scientists are also encountering more resistant bacteria in Swiss hospitals. Mühlemann said that whereas in the past these bacteria were only encountered in the bigger hospitals, now the problem had spread to smaller clinics.
Figures from the national research programme on antibiotic resistance showed that in western Switzerland, one in four cases of childhood pneumococcal disease – associated with pneumonia - proved to be resistant to antibiotics between 1998 and 2000.
Over the same period, the number of cases of resistant pneumococcal disease in children nationwide rose to 16 per cent, from 12 per cent.
However Mühlemann said the situation was “still under control”.
“In cases of resistance, we can still use other broad-spectrum antibiotics,” she said. “But it’s not an ideal situation. By using antibiotics not targeted to the exact bacteria, you promote resistance.”
Experts say the best way to ensure antibiotics work is to use them sparingly – targeting the specific infection for precisely as long as the doctor has ordered.
Francioli says infections by certain bacteria, including pneumococci, may be prevented by vaccination against influenza and the diseases of childhood.
He also recommends good hygiene, with frequent washing of the hands to protect against infection. Nurses and doctors should wash both before and after seeing each patient, he adds.
The national research programme was set up in 2001 with a budget of SFr12 million.
The Federal Health Office plans to create a national centre to monitor cases of resistance once the national research programme is concluded in 2006.
swissinfo, Elizabeth Meen
The scientific advisory group, comprising scientists, will release information to media, public health authorities and government officials.
The Swiss National Science Foundation commissioned the survey, and hosted the news conference in Bern on Wednesday.
It also funds a research programme on antibiotic resistance with a SFr12 million grant over five years.
As antibiotics are used, experts say strains of super-bacteria capable of surviving them come to outnumber the vulnerable strains.
In a nationwide survey of 1,007 people, 80% voiced concern about antibiotic resistance.
40% called for more information.