A timely reminder on using antibiotics well (and badly)

The Infectious Diseases Society of America, the professional organization for ID physicians, is criticizing large grocery store and pharmacy chains for giving antibiotics away for free. (Yes, you read that right: Not generic, not cheap, free. Here is a Wall Street Journal Health blog post explaining the practice, which has become quite common over the past two years.)

IDSA is concerned of course that these antibiotics will be used inappropriately because, being free, they will have a perceived lesser value. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been campaigning for years against inappropriate antibiotic use, via its Get Smart: Keep Antibiotics Working campaign.

(Why is it important to use antibiotics only for the things they work against? All together now: Because if used inappropriately — in too-low doses, too-short courses, or against an illness where they are not useful — they will encourage the development of resistant bacteria, and also may kill your own commensal bacteria, clearing a niche that resistant ones can then occupy. Very good, class, early dismissal today.)

There’s an additional, interesting twist to these campaigns, though, which IDSA very rightly raises: They are taking place now, in flu season. One of the most common inappropriate uses of antibiotics is against viral diseases such as flu; the CDC says:

Tens of millions of antibiotics prescribed in doctors’ offices each year are for viral infections, which cannot effectively be treated with antibiotics. Doctors cite diagnostic uncertainty, time pressure on physicians, and patient demand as the primary reasons why antibiotics are over-prescribed.

IDSA is quite rightly concerned that the launch of these free-pill programs in flu season will reinforce the association between flu and antibiotics, which is precisely the association that causes antibiotics to be most overused. An excellent point.

Maryn

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