World Antibiotic Awareness Week may have gotten off to an inauspicious start, as the World Health Organization released a survey Monday that found alarming rates of confusion and misconceptions in 12 countries around the world about when, how and why antibiotics should be used. Nearly a third of those surveyed, for instance, said they believed they should stop taking antibiotics as soon as they felt better, rather than finishing the full course of medication, while nearly two-thirds incorrectly said that viruses, like those that cause colds, can be treated with antibiotics.

The purpose of World Antibiotic Awareness Week, which runs Monday through Sunday, is "to increase awareness of global antibiotic resistance and to encourage best practices among the general public, health workers and policymakers to avoid the further emergence and spread of antibiotic resistance," according to the World Health Organization. 

The findings of the survey seemed to underscore just how far countries around the world have to go to in order to achieve that goal. The WHO describes antibiotic resistance, which is when antibiotics cease to wipe out the bacteria they have been designed to kill, as "one of the biggest threats to global health today."

“The findings of this survey point to the urgent need to improve understanding around antibiotic resistance,” Keiji Fukuda, special representative for antimicrobial resistance for the director general of the WHO, said in a statement. “One of the biggest health challenges of the 21st century will require global behavior change by individuals and societies,” he added.

The multicountry survey -- which the WHO conducted in Barbados, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria, the Russian Federation, Serbia, South Africa, Sudan and Vietnam -- asked 14 questions about antibiotics, such as their intended usage as well as the phenomenon of antibiotic resistance. Although the survey focused on just 12 countries, the World Health Organization said it would help it identify the biggest gaps and steps needed around the world to improve public understanding of how to use antibiotics properly. 

Three-quarters of those surveyed said antibiotic resistance is when the body -- not infection-causing bacteria -- stopped responding to antibiotics. Two-thirds of respondents believed, falsely, that if they took antibiotics as prescribed, they faced no risk of developing a resistant infection. And 44 percent of those surveyed said that antibiotic resistance posed a threat only to those who regularly took antibiotics. In reality, anyone around the world is at risk of developing a resistant infection, be it caused by carbapenem-resistant enterobacteriaceae after surgery in hospitals in the United States or unresponsive bacteria in a festering wound received in war-torn Yemen.

Respondents also appeared to have great faith that the problem of antibiotic resistance would be solved soon, with nearly two-thirds saying that medical experts would fix it. 

One of the questions where respondents seemed most on target was the issue of pre-emptively giving antibiotics to livestock. Nearly three-quarters of those surveyed said farmers should administer fewer antibiotics to food animals, a practice that the CDC has said "can directly or indirectly result in antibiotic-resistant infections in humans." It was unclear, however, whether that survey response stemmed from a deeper understanding of the mechanisms of antibiotic resistance or a popular movement to cut back on antibiotics used in animals.