Flu Season Dangers: Spikes in Antibiotic Resistance

Aug 7, 2012, 4:45 PM, Posted by Pioneer Blog Team

An op-ed published Monday in Modern Healthcare describes how the overuse of antibiotics during flu season makes the growing problem of antibiotic resistance worse, even in the short-term.  This research--from a new study last month in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases--found that spikes in prescription sales for two popular groups of antibiotics during flu season led to a rapid increase, one month later, in resistant Escherichia coli (E. coli) in hospitals. It also found a rise in methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureas (MRSA) linked to increases in prescriptions of other antibiotics.  

The research was conducted by Extending the Cure, a project funded by the Pioneer Portfolio that researches and examines solutions to address antibiotic resistance.

It is well-known that exposure to antibiotics leads disease-causing microbes to become resistant to these powerful drugs.  This study showing seasonal fluctuations in resistance adds a new urgency to public health efforts to combat the problem of resistance.

In the op-ed, Ramanan Laxminarayan, study author and director of Extending the Cure, calls for a joint effort among hospitals, consumers, doctors and public health officials to make wiser use of antibiotics and help fight antibiotic overuse, especially during the flu season. Among his recommendations:

  • All healthy people 6 months and up, especially health care workers, should get annual flu shots (unless their doctor advises against it). Less people with the flu means fewer unnecessary antibiotic prescriptions.
  • People demand antibiotics when they or their children have the flu or a cold, despite the fact that the drugs don’t work against viruses. Consumers can resist the urge to demand an antibiotic at the first sign of the illness.
  • Public health officials and hospitals should coordinate their antibiotic use education campaigns when they anticipate spikes in overuse, such as during flu season.

Laxminarayan also asks all of us to start viewing antibiotics as a natural resource that can be depleted with overuse, much like oil or water, which must be conserved so these resources are there for us when we need them.

In a 2011 policy brief, Extending the Cure summarized the latest research on strategies to reduce doctor’s over-prescribing of antibiotics, such as: education programs, the use of incentives, and mandating appropriate prescribing.

Read a related post about a cover story in the Milken Institute Review on the economics of antibiotic resistance from Ramanan Laxminarayan.

Let us know what you think:  How can we conserve our use of antibiotics as individual consumers? As a society?  Leave a comment here or tweet @PioneerRWJF #SaveAbx and @CDDEP to tell us what you think.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.