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18 Nov 2011
A large poll by the Health Protection Agency (HPA) has found that half of patients visiting their doctor with respiratory infections still expect to be prescribed an antibiotic. It seems that GPs are all too often succumbing to pressure from patients to prescribe an antibiotic, and do so, even to 'treat' a viral infection (although antibiotics by nature will only work against bacteria). Furthermore, the poll of 1,800 people discovered that 1 in 10 people keep leftover antibiotics, many self-prescribing the next time they become ill.
News comes at the same time as the British Society for Antimicrobial Therapy's statement that antibiotic-resistant superbugs are set to become a larger threat for patients in the UK. According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, antimicrobial resistance is 'one of the most serious public health challenges we face in the EU'. The rise in these antibiotic-resistant pathogens is mostly being attributed to the slowing discovery of antibiotics by large drug companies, but some are blaming the overprescription of antibiotics by GPs who are pressured to find some solution for patients and hurry them along.
How does bacteria become resistant to antibiotics? In some cases certain individual cells will see random mutations, sometimes these permutations can mean the cell becomes protected from the effects of the antibiotic and therefore the cell survives. Bacteria without the mutation are killed off, but the resistant bacteria are able to reproduce. An example of an antibiotic-resistant bacteria is 'methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus', also known as MRSA.
Dr McNulty from the HPA did state that another problem with over-use of antibiotics was the increased likelihood of contracting antibiotic-associated diarrhoea. This is because antibiotics also kill off 'good bacteria', upsetting body's natural gut-flora balance. In more serious cases, prolonged antibiotic use can lead to superbugs like Clostridium difficile, a sometimes deadly superbug of which there insufficient awareness.
The Health Protection Agency is urging GPs to resist prescribing antibiotics where they are not necessary. Where possible, avoid taking antibiotics. If on antibiotics, always follow your doctor's instructions and finish the course. And don't forget to replenish your body's beneficial gut flora (see the Probiotics Learning Lab for more)!