A new study published in the journal Pediatrics suggests that 11.4 million antibiotic prescriptions written each year for children and teenagers could be unnecessary.
A particular area of concern highlighted by the study is that antibiotics are being prescribed for respiratory infections, despite being ineffective against these viruses.
However, there are currently no practical tools available to clinicians that allow them to distinguish viral from bacterial illness - other than the rapid strep test for throat infections.
The researchers performed a meta-analysis of studies investigating acute respiratory tract infection bacterial prevalence rates during 2000-11. Data on children and teenagers evaluated in ambulatory clinics during 2000-10 were also analyzed to estimate the prescription rates of antibiotics among this group.
The researchers estimated that 27.4% of American children with acute respiratory tract infection have bacterial illness. This estimate was calculated by taking into account the prevalence of bacteria in ear and throat infections and the extent to which pneumococcal vaccine is now preventing many bacterial infections.
However, the study also found that antibiotics are prescribed in about 56.95% of visits to the doctor for acute respiratory tract infections.
The authors say tools that allow doctors to tell viral from bacterial infections are "urgently needed." In the meantime, they suggest that doctors factor this knowledge of bacterial prevalence into their decision making when debating strategies with families.
Overprescription and antibiotic resistance
Recently, Medical News Today published a spotlight feature examining the extent to which antibiotic resistance has become a threat to public health.
In that feature, Dr. Steve Solomon, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC's) Office of Antimicrobial Resistance, told us that as much as 50% of antibiotics prescriptions are unnecessary or misused, which promotes antibiotic resistance.
Dr. Soloman explained:
"During the last 70 years, bacteria have shown the ability to become resistant to every antibiotic that has been developed. And the more antibiotics are used, the more quickly bacteria develop resistance. The use of antibiotics at any time in any setting puts biological pressure on bacteria that promotes the development of resistance."
According to a CDC study, more than 2 million people in the US alone become ill every year as a result of antibiotic-resistant infections, with 23,000 dying from these infections each year.
Last week, Medical News Today also reported on research from Lund University in Sweden investigating the antimicrobial properties of lactic acid bacteria found in the honey stomachs of honeybees.
The Lund researchers found that this bacteria is able to fight the superbug meticillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or "MRSA," so are examining whether honey could be used as an alternative to antibiotics.
One advantage of the honey, the researchers suggest, is that while antibiotics usually consist of one active substance that is effective against a narrow spectrum of bacteria, the honey contains 13 lactic acid bacteria that may be able to "produce the right kind of antimicrobial compounds as needed, depending on the threat."