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Health care leaders talk strategies for war against antibiotic resistance

SACRAMENTO, CAL., Nov. 2, 2002 -- Health care leaders from over 30 states gathered in Sacramento at the weekend, looking for answers to the national epidemic of antibiotic resistance -- a growing problem preventing antibiotic medications from working properly.

The California Medical Association Foundation's project, the Alliance Working for Antibiotic Resistance Education (AWARE), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation hosted a conference of national health care and consumer leaders to share strategies for keeping medicines strong for future generations and stopping the inappropriate use of antibiotics.

"Antibiotic resistance isn't just a state problem, it's a national epidemic which crosses all state lines," said Rich Besser, M.D., Medical Director for the CDC National Campaign for Appropriate Antibiotic Use in the Community. "Working together toward a common solution is the fastest and most effective way to reduce antibiotic resistance in our communities."

Antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria that are not killed by usual doses of antibiotics multiply and develop a resistance that even the strongest antibiotics can't fight. This resistance trend is increasing as consumers find new ways to get antibiotics they may not need.

In some cases, patients are demanding antibiotics from their doctors to treat colds or the flu, believing the medicine will help make them feel better sooner. To save money or avoid seeing their doctors, some are buying antibiotics at pet stores, purchasing other people's prescriptions at swap meets, or traveling to Mexico or Canada where antibiotics are more easily obtained.

Used properly, antibiotics are life-saving treatments, but, taken when  not prescribed they can be toxic and life-threatening.

"In many cases, unregulated medical care can delay patients from seeking proper medical treatment which can result in untreated diseases, health complications and even death," said Joe Silva M.D., Dean of the U.C. Davis School of Medicine and Chair of the AWARE coalition. "Deaths caused by these illegal practices are only expected to grow, and many will be unrecognized or unreported."

Changing consumer behavior about the proper use of antibiotics is seen as crucial. Conference attendees believed more education was needed to inform people that antibiotics are only effective against bacterial infections (bacterial pneumonia, bacterial sinusitis) and not viral infections (colds, flu). In the meantime, it is a race against time, as super bugs are growing more resistant to these once powerful medications.

"We can talk about antibiotic resistance problems until we are blue in the face," said Jeff Kamil M.D., Vice President and Corporate Medical Director, Blue Cross of California. "But until people change their actions and start using antibiotics properly, these bacteria are going to keep coming back stronger, and soon we may not have effective medications to treat them."

Throughout the year, projects like AWARE remind consumers about the appropriate use of antibiotics:

  • Stay healthy.  Wash your hands frequently and wipe hard surfaces like desks and tables with a disinfecting cleaner every day to kill most germs.
  • Finish your antibiotic prescription even if you start to feel better.
  • Never share or take leftover antibiotics.
  • Never use antibiotics for a cold or the flu. They don't work.

In California, more than one-third of bacterial infections are already resistant to antibiotics such as penicillin. That means, in one out of three cases, a prescription for penicillin will not stop the mutated bacteria.

Since last year's Anthrax scare and the resulting inappropriate uses of the antibiotic Cipro, physicians around the nation have started seeing incremental increases in the number of bacterial infections which are resistant to this last-line-of-defense category of antibiotics.

The California Medical Association Foundation initiated a long-term, statewide effort to promote the appropriate use of antibiotics called, Alliance Working for Antibiotic Resistance Education (AWARE). AWARE  includes physician organizations, healthcare providers, health systems, health plans, public health agencies, consumer and community based health organizations, federal, state and local government representatives and the pharmaceutical industry.

Source: AWARE

Posted: November 2002

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