PureInsight | January 3, 2001
Dec. 28, 2000 ¡ª The risk of developing an antibiotic-resistant infection rose by about a third from 1995 to 1998, the latest warning that antibiotics are losing their effectiveness due to overuse, researchers reported in Thursday's New England Journal of Medicine.
Extensive use in both people and animals is breeding new generations of bugs that withstand antibiotics, drugs that revolutionized medicine when they were introduced in the middle of the 20th century. The declining effectiveness of antibiotics is a serious concern to the medical community.
The new study focused on Streptococcus pneumoniae, the most commonly identified cause of meningitis, pneumonia and middle ear infections in the United States. The findings illustrated that the risk of developing an antibiotic-resistant bacterial infection rose substantially between 1995 and 1998.
Among those who developed a Streptococcus pneumoniae infection, 14 percent in 1998 had one resistant to at least three different types of antibiotics, compared to 9 percent in 1995.
'Multidrug-resistant pneumococci are common and are increasing,' said the research team, led by Dr. Cynthia Whitney of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
About 160 million antibiotic prescriptions are written in the United States each year for some 25 million pounds (11.3 million kg) of antibiotics. About half of those prescriptions are unnecessary, according to an editorial in the Journal.
The new study's findings were based on tests of 3,475 samples from 1998 from all over the country. Twenty-four percent of the bacteria in the samples were resistant to penicillin, and the rate ranged up to 35 percent in Tennessee and down to 15 percent in New York and California.
Once the bacteria had adapted to fight off penicillin, the researchers found, they were likely to be able to withstand the onslaught of other types of antibiotics as well.
One answer, researchers said, is to take greater care in the use of the drugs, which are so common they are often included in the food of livestock.
Another is to immunize people against pneumococcal infections through vaccination. The vaccine, already used for adults, recently has become available to young children in the United States.
In their editorial, Drs. Richard Wenzel and Michael Edmond of Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond said routinely immunizing infants in the United States would prevent 53,000 cases of pneumonia, 12,000 cases of meningitis and 110 deaths each year.
'We need to reassess policies on antibiotic use while changing our approach to include vaccinations against pneumococcal infections of all children over the age of 4, all adults over age 65, and all people with HIV infection,' Wenzel and Edmond said.