Why are Antibiotics on the Rise?

by John Pollitt on October 14, 2014

According to a recent study by University College London and Public Health England, the proportion of patients given antibiotics for coughs and colds has risen by 40% in just over a decade. The research, which focused on 500 UK GP practices, discovered that 36% of patients were prescribed antibiotics for these symptoms in 1999, rising to 51% by 2011.

The findings, published in the Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy, indicate that advice from both the medical establishment and Government to avoid the use of antibiotics unless necessary is not filtering through.

The Department of Health recommended limiting the prescription of antibiotics back in 1998 and, more recently, Prime Minister David Cameron warned that the world could be “cast back into the dark ages of medicine” unless steps are taken to tackle the growing resistance to antibiotics.

Are we really heading towards a Post-Antibiotic Era?

It has been suggested that the increase in prescription rates of antibiotics has resulted from patient expectation and pressure. Dr Maureen Baker, of the Royal College of GPs, argues that “we have developed a worrying reliance on them and GPs face enormous pressure to prescribe them, even for minor symptoms which will get better on their
own or can be treated effectively with other forms of medication.

Obviously this is only one side of the story and GPs ultimately decide whether or not to make the prescriptions; it could be that many are taking a “better safe than sorry” approach. Whatever the reason for this pronounced rise in antibiotic use, the main danger lies in a growing resistance to their effectiveness.

Why are antibiotics becoming less effective?

Antibiotics are used to treat and prevent bacterial infections. But the more that antibiotics are used, the more bacteria will adapt and be able to resist their effect. This can be a particular problem with sepsis, a serious condition triggered by an infection which leads to 37,000 deaths each year in the UK. Prof Bellamy, who is based at the Leeds Institute of Biomedical and Clinical Sciences and recently cared for “a couple patients for whom we had no effective antibiotic treatment” warns of a ” spectre emerging of moving into a post-antibiotic era“.

Other dangers associated with Antibiotics

Growing resistance of bacteria isn’t the only problem when it comes to using antibiotics. If administered incorrectly, they can cause other medical complications. For example, the widely used and powerful antibiotic Gentamicin can lead to poisoning and ultimately prove fatal. Various side effects include kidney damage, nerve damage and memory problems.

The potential danger of some antibiotics like Gentamicin, combined with the growing spectre of antibiotic resistance, highlight how vital it is that antibiotics are only prescribed when strictly necessary and with due care. This not only involves training clinicians and GPs prescribe them more sparingly, but also in educating the public about both the immediate personal and long term societal risks these powerful drugs can have.

John Pollitt
John Pollitt is a Partner at Pearson Legal, on their specialist Medical Negligence team. He has been practicing clinical negligence law since 1990 and is a tireless campaigner for the rights of patients and the individual, fighting hard to bring in millions of pounds worth of compensation for those who need it most. As well being a member of the Law Society Clinical Negligence Panel he also sits on the Referral Panel of Action Against Medical Accidents (AvMA).
John Pollitt
John Pollitt

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