(NaturalNews) The United Kingdom's Health Secretary has called on doctors to stop prescribing antibiotics for minor health problems like coughs, colds and sore throats, as part of a government initiative to prevent the spread of antibiotic-resistant superbugs like methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).
The British government is launching a £270 million ($530 million) campaign against superbugs, which includes the imposition of new rules to mandate deep cleaning of hospitals, screening of all hospital patients for MRSA by 2009, keeping health professionals bare below the elbows, and providing specialized infection control nurses and antibiotic pharmacists for hospitals. A major component of the campaign is preventing the over-prescription of antibiotics.
By wiping out susceptible bacteria but leaving resistant bacteria unharmed, antibiotics inevitably create conditions in which drug-resistant bacteria can reproduce nearly uninhibited. This problem is exacerbated when patients do not finish their antibiotic courses, or when antibiotics are used without good reason.
Because antibiotics affect only bacteria and the vast majority of upper respiratory infections are caused by viruses, prescribing the drugs for these patients provides no health benefit. Health Secretary Alan Johnson noted that such unnecessary prescriptions cost the British health system £1.7 billion ($3.3 billion) per year.
"In the old days, before we had problems with resistance, people thought it really didn't matter - you could throw antibiotics at these cases and you would pick up the odd one that was treatable that way," said Mark Enright, a professor of molecular epidemiology at Imperial College London. "I am sure there are still [doctors] who think ... antibiotics are the global panacea we once thought they were."
Antibiotics also destroy native and beneficial bacteria in the human gut, leaving patients susceptible to colonization by potentially dangerous gut infections.
Three of the most common antibiotic treatments - amoxicillin, cefaclor and trimethoprim - have all become less effective in recent years as drug resistant strains have become more common.