Although it is technically illegal to distribute antibiotics without a prescription in Uganda, pharmacies are often teeming with customers buying the drugs with little or no oversight.
Over time, bacteria have built up resistance to the overused drugs. Studies find that in Uganda, 80 percent of the bacteria that cause diseases such as pneumonia and tuberculosis are resistant to antibiotics.
Advocates say part of the problem is understaffing. Uganda has only 600 pharmacists for a population of 37 million. This leads many people to self-prescribe, especially in rural areas.
Kennedy Odokonyero of the Makerere University Pharmacy Students Association said villagers can do this because they have hoarded the drugs.
If they learn that there's a new supply available at a given health facility, "everyone in the village would come" to it, Odokonyero said. "Their thing is they want to get the medicines because there's still a lot of it — get the medicines and take it to their homes and keep it" to use later, should they fall ill.
The Rational Medical Use Campaign, now being rolled out by the Pharmaceutical Society of Uganda, is using social media and community outreach to urge citizens to get accurate diagnoses before starting medication. It also discourages the sharing of medicines and reminds people to finish their prescribed doses.
The Uganda National Academy of Sciences' Global Antibiotic Resistance Partnership has also published a report attempting to tackle the problem of antibiotic abuse.
Professor Denis Byarugaba, a microbiologist who chairs the group, said the clinicians and pharmacists are the first line of defense, "because the common person, given our education levels, may not appreciate what all this means. But someone that has been in medical school or has been through any kind of professional medical related field should understand really what it means every time they administer or they dispense an antibiotic without a prescription, without knowing that actually this person has got a bacterial infection.”
Medical professionals are hoping that by making the public aware of the dangers, they can stop the abuse of antibiotics and allow new drugs to remain effective when they come on the market.