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Antibiotic Prescribing Rates May Vary by Region

It may be contributing to growing problem of drug-resistant bacteria, researcher says
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"When people think about antibiotic resistance, they think it's their body being resistant," Hicks said. "They don't realize that the actual number of microbes or bacterial cells in the body outnumber the human [cells]."

The bacteria are changing so rapidly -- some replicate every 40 minutes -- that they continually evolve, making them better able to resist antibiotics to which they've been exposed, Hicks said.

That leaves an increasing number of people virtually defenseless against infections that once were relatively easy to resolve. And scientists estimate that 50 percent of prescriptions for antibiotics may be unnecessary.

"There are infections out there that have become almost impossible to treat," Hicks said. "We really are on the verge of going down a path where there may be nothing that works. Now we're seeing young, healthy people getting these highly resistant infections requiring hospitalization where in the past a simple oral antibiotic would have taken care of it."

The CDC is trying to help solve the problem of antibiotic drug resistance by increasing public awareness and educating physicians about the most effective way to prescribe antibiotics, said Hicks, who is director of the agency's Get Smart: Know When Antibiotics Work program.

In the latest research, the scientists tapped into a database that included more than 70 percent of the nation's prescriptions in 2010. Drawing from prescriptions and census information, they calculated prescribing rates for outpatient oral antibiotics.

"The database is like a [national] census of antibiotic use," and the information was obtained from all pharmacies and drug makers nationwide, Hicks said.

Many people think antibiotics are harmless, but side effects and allergies to the medications are actually one of the most common reasons people go to the emergency room, she said.

"You can get anything ranging from an itchy rash to diarrhea, a torn Achilles tendon from taking a fluoroquinolone like Bactrim, an anaphylactic reaction (an immune system reaction that causes shock) or toxic epidermal necrolysis (a life-threatening skin condition)," Hicks said.

Dr. Len Horovitz, a pulmonologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, said he sees patients every day who want and expect to get antibiotics.

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