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There's Hope for Slowing Antibiotic Resistance

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WebMD Health News

Jan. 17, 2001 -- The evidence has been building, all pointing to the same critical public health problem. Several dangerous bacteria have become resistant to antibiotics -- largely because we demand the drugs from our doctors. Evidence also is emerging that antibiotics are overused in treatment of animals, too.

Yet, there's hope on the horizon, experts say. The CDC has launched a nationwide campaign aimed at informing the public about appropriate use of antibiotics. And the FDA has taken unprecedented action to pull antibiotics from use in treating -- and fattening -- livestock.

"We applaud the FDA's action," Margaret Mellon, PhD, director of the Food and Environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, tells WebMD. "We think this is a turning point for the agency in its handling of the antibiotic issue."

How did we get to this point?

Half of all Americans have mistaken beliefs about antibiotics, according to a study reported last year at the International Conference on Emerging Infectious Disease.

Before antibiotics became available in the 1940s, not much could be done to cure life-threatening bacterial infections. But antibiotics have been so successful in curing these infections that many people now believe -- erroneously -- that they can cure virtually any disease.

"We estimate that at least 40% of antibiotics used in doctors' outpatient offices across the country are being prescribed for conditions that are largely viral -- for which antibiotics have no effect," says Richard Besser, MD, pediatric and medical epidemiologist in the National Center for Infectious Diseases at the CDC.

"There seems to be this feeling by the general public that if you're coughing up something green or if it is coming out of your nose, you need an antibiotic," Besser tells WebMD. "That's just not true."

Physicians get pressure from patients -- and they're giving in to it, Besser says. "It's clear that clinicians are more likely to prescribe antibiotics if the patient wants one," he says. "If you look at the pressures on clinicians -- the amount of time it takes to explain the difference between viral and bacterial infections -- yet they have less and less time to spend with patients."

Some of the data:

  • Each year, 160 million antibiotic prescriptions are written for 275 million U.S. residents, but half of those prescriptions are unnecessary, according to a recent editorial in The New England Journal of Medicine.
  • Many people expect doctors to prescribe antibiotics for a bad cold -- and believe that those antibiotics help them get better faster, according to another study in NEJM. Many people think they can prevent more serious illnesses by taking antibiotics.
  • A CDC study of 366 family physicians and pediatricians in Georgia showed that although 97% thought that overly prescribed antibiotics were responsible for the development of resistant organisms, 86% prescribed antibiotics for bronchitis regardless of the duration of symptoms, 42% used them for colds, and 55% wrote antibiotic prescriptions for children with nonspecific upper respiratory infections to prevent ear infections -- largely because of parents' beliefs.

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