Australian GPs are prescribing antibiotics at up to nine times the recommended rates, a new study has revealed, in an alarming trend that could help fuel the rise of deadly superbugs and antimicrobial resistance.
Antiobiotics were prescribed for almost six million cases of acute respiratory infection (ARIs) by GPs annually between 2010 and 2015, but at least three quarters of these were unnecessary, according to a new study published in the Medical Journal of Australia.
ARIs include the common cold, but also influenza, bronchitis, rhinosinusitis, laryngitis and pneumonia.
Australia's Therapeutic Guidelines do not recommend the use of antibiotics for treating chest colds caused by acute bronchitis or bronchiolitis (a viral infection common in young children), yet 85 percent of patients with these illnesses are prescribed antibiotics by their doctors.
Eleven percent of patients with influenza (the flu) were given antibiotics, despite the guidelines recommending against it.
Antibiotics are needed for just 0.5 to 8 percent of those suffering rhinosinusitis (a sinus infection), yet were prescribed by GPs around 40 percent of the time.
"Had GPs adhered to widely consulted antibiotic prescribing guidelines, the rate of prescription would have been 11-23 percent," the report authors wrote.
This means that up to 5.32 million people are unnecessarily taking antibiotics each year.
Co-author of the study, Bond University Professor Paul Glasziou, said he believed doctors' fears of missing a serious illness contributed to the high rates of antibiotics prescription, as well as patients' expectations around antibiotics are partly behind the over-prescription.
He pointed to Sweden, which previously had rates of antibiotic use similar to Australia, as a country which had successfully halved its antibiotic use.
"It shows that you could safely stay within the guidelines and drop the prescribing rate quite a lot," Professor Glasziou said.
Australia's antibiotic use is around 10 percent higher than average for OECD nations.
It's long been understood the nation's use of antibiotics was high. In June last year, Australia's Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy wrote to over 5,000 high-prescribing GPs urging them to reduce their prescription of antibiotics.
The overuse of antibiotics is a worldwide health concern, as bacteria become resistance to more and more strains of the drug.
If left unchecked, it could mean that chemotherapy, dental procedures and common surgeries, such as caesareans, become increasingly life-threatening as infections become impossible to treat.
Experts are also concerned about the overuse of antibiotics in hospitals, as well as in farming, which reaches us through food supply chains.
According to a June 2016 report, more than a third of patients were given antibiotics on any one day in Australian hospitals, almost half of which were either inappropriately prescribed or flouted guidelines.
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