In season of colds, flu, ear infections, we need to fight antibiotic overuse

As the East Coast digs out from the big snow, winds, and the freezing weather, many around us also will be coming down with colds and flu. Public health officials forecast the infections of the seasonal illnesses will markedly increase in the days ahead. It’s a perfect time to talk about antibiotics. In brief, they don’t work against the virus-caused flu; they’re not recommended for most colds, which also are virus-caused, and many bronchial conditions. Don’t think about them to medicate kids’ ear infections. We all need to join in the campaign to curb overuse of invaluable antibiotics — and here are some reminders how and why.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently joined with the American College of Physicians to issue new guidelines, urging caregivers to be careful in prescribing antibiotics, even for more severe bronchial infections. Here’s why:

Antibiotics are prescribed at more than 100 million adult ambulatory care visits annually, and 41% of these prescriptions are for respiratory conditions (1). Inappropriate antibiotic use for [acute respiratory tract infections] is an important contributor to antibiotic resistance, an urgent public health threat (2). In the United States, at least 2 million antibiotic-resistant illnesses and 23 000 deaths occur each year, at a cost to the U.S. economy of at least $30 billion (2). Increased community use of antibiotics is highly correlated with emerging antibiotic-resistant infections. In places with greater prescribing of broad-spectrum antibiotics … rates of multidrug-resistant pneumococcal disease are higher. …

Professional groups of pediatricians and family physicians, just to remind, have warned against wasteful, ineffective, and potentially harmful prescribing of antibiotics for kids with ear infections.

The rampant overuse of antibiotics, scientists say, has led to the rise of antimicrobial resistance that has become a global health threat. Breeders have fed the medications freely to produce bigger pigs and cattle that fetch higher market prices. But this only has helped to make drug-resistant superbugs a spreading bane, creating havoc in hospitals and caregiving institutions (nursing homes), as well as public spaces like gyms where kids and athletes work out and contract MRSA infections. Global antibiotic overuse, one research study recently calculated, could create a “doomsday scenario” in which no effective antimicrobial treatments are available:

Under this scenario, hospital-acquired infections and other diseases like HIV, TB and malaria would be beyond the reach of medical help. We found that this scenario would cost the world 444 million adults by the year 2050. This decrease in global population would translate into an annual loss to the world economy of up to $3 trillion, or roughly the equivalent of the current combined annual output of New York and Texas.

Fast food chains, never operations eager to forego a buck nor to accept anything but the most expeditious supply, have stepped up and many slowly are committing to serving only antibiotic-free beef and chicken. Big Pharma, in my view, operates only rarely with benevolence and broad interests beyond the monetary. But the antibiotic crisis is so grave that dozens of companies have committed to developing new medications and therapies.

It’s good to know that global efforts are under way to address antibiotic overuse and its potentially dire consequences. As I have written, Congress and the Obama Administration significantly increased federal health care funding as part of a hectic, end-of-year budget action. Some of the increased funding will support efforts to combat antibiotic overuse and superbugs. This is a pitched battle that we cannot afford to lose and in which we all need to do our part.

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