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There's Hope for Slowing Antibiotic Resistance

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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.

The result of all this overuse: increased numbers of antibiotic-resistant infections.

In fact, there's been a significant increase in the number of streptococcal -- strep -- infections resistant to multiple antibiotics, according to a CDC study published in the NEJM. "We're greatly concerned about that data," Besser says.

"That bacterial strain is responsible for bacterial meningitis [an infection of the lining of the brain], pneumonia, and is the leading cause of ear infections in children," he says. "It's responsible for an enormous amount of disease. It's a serious public health problem."

There's also been a significant rise in Salmonella food poisoning with strains resistant to the drug most commonly used to treat children with severe Salmonella infections. Numerous infections caused by the bacteria Campylobacter have been found resistant to a common class of antibiotics called fluoroquinolones, used to treat infections in chickens.

A "supergerm" form of the bacteria Enterococcus -- which invades surgical wounds, causing potentially deadly abdominal, urinary tract, and heart valve infections -- also has developed. Although the bacteria are resistant to virginiamycin, an antibiotic also widely used in the treatment of food-producing animals for about 26 years, some of these infections can be treated with another antibiotic, vancomycin.

It's a frightening issue -- but progress is being made to bring things under control.

About 30% fewer pediatricians are writing antibiotic prescriptions for children's infections, Besser tells WebMD. "That corresponds with increased awareness across the country of the problem of antibiotic resistance." Besser heads the CDC's nationwide campaign aimed at appropriate use of antibiotics.

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