The Social Burden of Antimicrobial Resistance in Australia

The social burden of antimicrobial resistance in Australia: Long term survivors’ therapeutic quests

Antimicrobial Resistance |  Drug-resistant Infection | Bacteria | Bacterial  Infections | Chronic Infection

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is defined as a global health emergency by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Already within Australia, there is a growing burden of morbidity and mortality due to AMR infections, sometimes referred to as "Superbugs".   An AMR infection refers to any bacterial infection where there are no antibiotics that can successfully treat it.  While efforts are underway to develop new interventions to prevent and treat such infections, little research has been undertaken on the social costs and implications of these infections, particularly within patients who have survived, but continue to suffer from the sequelae of AMR infection.

As numbers of infections increase it is important to understand how people live with AMR and how best to support them. Often thought of in terms of an acute illness episode, in reality, AMR infections encompass a plethora of infections from acute through to chronic complications. For example, long-term infections may lead to a cascade of chronic medical complications that cannot be treated, repeated hospitalisations and medications, amputations, chronic disabilities, mental health problems and social stigma. In many cases patients have exhausted all traditional medical options and undertake their own extensive searches for alternative therapies, including medical travel overseas in search of experimental treatments, such as Phage therapy. Phage therapy is the use of bacterial viruses, commonly known as bacteriophages, to treat and eradicate an underlying bacterial infection. Currently, Phage therapy is not available in Australia and for patients seeking this treatment, the only option is international travel to clinics in Georgia in Eastern Europe. Some patients do pursue this at a large financial cost for uncertain results.

An empirical study of the lives of AMR survivors will enhance our understanding of the social burden associated with AMR, the psychosocial and medical needs for such patients, and the implications of their travel in search of cures.

As the numbers of patients with these infections increase, the outcomes from this study will inform better psychosocial supports for patients, assist in health messaging for the general public around the nature of AMR, while for clinicians it will provide new insights into better management of this unique and under-appreciated cohort of patients.


Whittaker, A., Do, T. (2023). Antimicrobial Resistance: Social Science Approaches to the Microbiosocial. In: Liamputtong, P. (eds) Handbook of Social Sciences and Global Public Health. Springer, Cham.

Abstract: This chapter examines the major approaches to what the authors term the microbiosocial as a shorthand means to emphasize the social–environmental relationships with the microbiological. As noted in this chapter, social science engagement with microbiological ecologies provides new perspectives on health but also challenges notions of the individual body as a unitary, indivisible unit of analysis and against reifying the biological/social boundary. This chapter is drawn upon qualitative research in anthropology, sociology, human geography, history, and the social studies of science and technology."

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What is living with chronic, untreatable ‘superbugs’ like?

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AMR Social Science Webinars

AMR survivors? The social burden of antimicrobial resistant infections

Behind the statistics forecasting millions of deaths associated with antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is an even greater burden of morbidity leaving many people with long-term chronic illnesses and disability. Despite a growing recognition of the importance of inter-sectoral and inter-disciplinary knowledge in forming responses to address this global health threat, there remains a paucity of social science research to understand the social burdens of AMR. In this qualitative study we explore the experience of people living with chronic AMR infections, their interactions with health providers and therapeutic quests for care, and the effects upon their lives and that of their families and caregivers. Our analysis reveals that in the case of AMR infections, the chronic, disruptive, disabling, and in some cases potentially fatal conditions required ongoing management, repeated interventions, and bids to try new untested therapies. The resistant infections impacted not only the physical health but also mental health of the sufferers and their caregivers, causing major disruptions to their social and work lives. Their interactions with the biomedical community often proved frustrating. Most undertook arduous treatment regimes – of powerful antibiotics with debilitating side effects, combined a range of other complementary and alternate therapies, including travel to seek treatment overseas. Further, we question the notion of ‘AMR survivorship’ currently being promoted as part of a public education campaign by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and whether people with the diverse AMR experience really self-identify as ‘survivors’ of a biosocial group.

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