By John Kerr 17/05/2017

We may be a small country tucked away in the South Pacific, but that doesn’t mean New Zealand is immune to the global problem of ‘superbugs’, warns a new report. 

A new evidence paper from the Royal Society Te Apārangi sums up the current knowledge on antimicrobial resistance (AMR) in New Zealand and outlines efforts underway to prevent the further spread of disease-causing microorganisms resistant to medicines – AKA ‘superbugs’.

Siouxsie Wiles, a microbiologist from the University of Auckland, a Royal Society Te Apārangi Councillor and an expert adviser on the report, says AMR is not a new thing.

“Microbes have become resistant to the medicines we have used to treat them ever since we started using medicines, but the problem is we are running out of medicines that work. The cupboard is now bare.”

A 2016 UK report cited in the paper estimates that without urgent action infections due to antimicrobial-resistant microbes could kill 10 million people globally per year by 2050.




Antimicrobial resistance in New Zealand

While New Zealand currently has relatively low rates of AMR, we cannot be complacent about the spread of resistant diseases.

“In New Zealand, we are as vulnerable as the rest of the world,” says Dr Wiles.  “We have higher rates of many infectious diseases than countries like the USA, the UK and Australia and a growing number of those organisms are becoming resistant to our medicines.”

“Here in New Zealand we travel a lot and every time we travel overseas whether it’s for holiday or for trade and business, we have the opportunity to bring resistant organisms back into New Zealand.”

“We are also breeding them here ourselves, especially by the way we use and abuse antibiotics.”

New Zealand has a high rate of community antibiotic use compared to other countries, and inappropriate prescribing of antibiotics can increase the spread of resistant microbes.

The paper from  Royal Society Te Apārangi outlines several cases studies highlighting AMR threats New Zealand is facing.

We are seeing increasing incidence of resistant Staphylococcus aureus infections, especially in the top half of the North Island.

There has also been an increase in cases of the currently rare – but particularly nasty –  carbapenemase-producing Enterobacteriaceae (CPE), which are resistant to last-resort antibiotics. In New Zealand cases of CPE detected in infections have risen from less than five in 2009 to 45 in 2016.


Antimicrobial Resistance
Source: Antimicrobial Resistance – Implications for New Zealanders: Evidence Update. Royal Society Te Apārangi.

What is New Zealand doing?

New Zealand has made a commitment to the World Health Organization (WHO) global action plan to tackle antimicrobial resistance. This plan outlines the following five strategic objectives to tackle antimicrobial resistance:

  1. Improve awareness and understanding of antimicrobial resistance.
  2. Strengthen knowledge through surveillance and research.
  3. Reduce the incidence of infection.
  4. Optimize the use of antimicrobial agents.
  5. Ensure sustainable investment in countering antimicrobial resistance.

The New Zealand Government is currently developing a national strategic action plan for antimicrobial resistance, aiming to have it in place mid-2017. A cross-agency team, the Antimicrobial Resistance Strategic Action Plan Development Group, has been set up to help develop the action plan.

The New Zealand Veterinary Association has also set an ambitious goal to phase out antibiotics for the maintenance of animal health and welfare by 2030.

Research is also underway in New Zealand and overseas to find new antimicrobial medicines. Dr Wiles says these efforts may help in the short term, but will only delay the rise of resistant diseases.

“It may buy us time but we are unlikely to find the silver bullet. Antimicrobial resistance is a serious issue for us, up there with climate change as one of the most pressing issues of our time, and we all need to be informed and take steps to help.”

What can YOU do?

The evidence paper has some take-home advice for every New Zealander, based on WHO recommendations:

  • Only take antibiotics prescribed by a certified health professional, an never demand antibiotic treatment against their professional medical advice
  • Complete the full prescription when using antibiotics and never share or use leftover antibiotics
  • To prevent infections occurring in the first place, practice regular hand washing, follow good hygiene practices when preparing food, and keep relevant vaccinations up to date.

You can read more about the evidence paper on