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There's Hope for Slowing Antibiotic Resistance

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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.

Even when parents know that antibiotics won't help their child's cold, they give in to pressure from day care workers, according to another study presented at last year's International Conference on Emerging Infectious Disease. Few day care providers knew that antibiotics would not end a cold more quickly or prevent it from spreading to other children, the study showed. The vast majority of these workers said they would keep children with colds in day care if they were taking antibiotics, but would send children home if they were not.

Common household soaps and detergents may even be contributing to the problem, according to researchers at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. Their study last year showed that exposure to the antiseptic triclosan, commonly used in these products, caused bacteria to gradually become resistant to several common antibiotics. In some cases, this increased their resistance as much as 500-fold. In some germs, resistance to triclosan translates into resistance to the drug used to treat tuberculosis; this is known as cross-resistance.

The fact that antibiotics are routinely used to fatten up cows, chickens, and pigs caught headlines recently. A report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit group, said that antibiotic use in livestock has jumped 64% since 1980. That's more than 25 million pounds per year, contrasted against about 3 million pounds of antibiotics used to treat humans yearly, the report said.

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