The study published in the Lancet found that 85 percent of coronavirus (COVID-19) patients admitted to National Health Service (NHS) hospitals during the first wave of the pandemic had been prescribed antibiotics. But the majority of the 48,902 patients involved in the study did not need or benefit from antibiotics as secondary bacterial infections are very rare in COVID-19 patients.
"COVID is a viral disease. It's not uncommon for viral diseases to be complicated by bacterial infection, but we're not seeing that very much," said study author Calum Semple. "We are seeing more antibiotics used than we would like, and we’re seeing the most precious antibiotics used that we would like to reserve for the most serious bacterial infections."
Overuse of antibiotics allows drug-resistant bacteria to develop. The pandemic is essentially fueling antibiotic resistance because virus patients are unnecessarily being prescribed with antibiotics.
Of 8,649 COVID-19 patients in the U.K. who underwent microbiological tests for infections, only 1,107 were diagnosed with bacterial diseases. In contrast, other viruses such as flu often cause patients to develop bacterial infections such as bacterial pneumonia. Around one in four patients with severe flu have bacterial co-infections.
The study suggests that doctors must cut down on antibiotic use in patients with COVID-19. Many antibiotics are useless against increasingly resistant germs and only effective when used to treat bacterial infections. (Related: Antibiotic resistance is causing numerous scientists to turn to natural, holistic immunity as a better option.)
Antibiotic resistance is a state that develops in bacteria when they have been exposed to medicines so many times that the drugs no longer work against them.
The bacteria can learn to exist alongside the medication if people are given antibiotics when they don't need them, or don't take them properly. Exposure to antibiotics teaches the bacteria how to survive. Meaning, antibiotics don't work as well over time and infections become more serious and harder to treat in the future.
It is already happening in diseases like the sexually transmitted infection gonorrhea. Resistant strains of disease mean that doctors have to use increasingly strong drugs that they wouldn't normally choose, simply because the original medicines don't work.
"Our study shows that co-infection is really rare, so the default is to not prescribe antibiotics unless you have good evidence," said Dr. Antonia Ho, the study's lead author from the University of Glasgow.
"Since antimicrobial resistance remains one of the biggest public health challenges of our time, measures to combat it are essential to help ensure that these life-saving medicines remain an effective treatment for infection in years to come."
The overuse of antibiotics is fueling a superbug crisis as it causes bacteria to mutate and become resistant to drugs.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), antibiotic-resistant superbugs kill more than 35,000 people in the U.S. every year. (Related: Antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections continue to rise: Just how inept is the conventional medical industry?)
The World Health Organization (WHO) reported in April revealed that none of the 43 antibiotics currently being developed "sufficiently address the problem of drug resistance" in the world's most dangerous bacteria.
A recent study by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that more than half of COVID-19 hospital patients received antibiotics during the first six months of the pandemic. In 96 percent of cases, treatment was given before a bacterial infection was even confirmed.
The findings were similar to those from a 2020 study of COVID-19 cases, revealing that over 70 percent of patients had received antimicrobial treatment, although less than 10 percent had bacterial or fungal co-infections.
David Hyun, director of Pew's Antibiotic Resistance Project, said the high number of COVID-19 patients treated with antibiotics was likely due to concerns about bacterial co-infections, and difficulty differentiating between bacterial and COVID-19 infections so early in the pandemic.
"This is where antibiotic stewardship programs are very much needed, to help providers and clinicians make the best clinical decisions possible for antibiotic prescribing."
Antibiotic stewardship is the systemic effort to ensure the effective treatment of infections. It combats AMR by monitoring and advising on antibiotic prescription and use.
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