A study published in the July issue of Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology shows that antibiotic prescriptions tend to spike during flu season, even though influenza is caused by a virus and cannot be treated with antibiotics.
Some of these antibiotic prescriptions are justified – bacterial pneumonia, which must be treated with antibiotics, is also common during the winter months. And getting the flu puts you at higher risk for developing complications from secondary infections, including bacterial pneumonia.
Yet some people suffering from the flu virus alone may demand–and get–an antibiotic even though viral infections do not respond to antibiotic treatment.
According to Extending the Cure, a nonprofit project funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Pioneer Portfolio, between 500,000 to one million antibiotic prescriptions are filled each year during flu season for patients who have the flu and no bacterial illness.
Why should we care about how many antibiotics are prescribed?
When antibiotics are overused or inappropriately used, bacteria can develop antibiotic resistance, or the ability to withstand antibiotic treatment, making bacterial infections difficult to treat. Antibiotic resistance can develop quickly. Today’s antibiotics – the wonder drugs that transformed modern medicine – are used so commonly that we face the prospect of a future with a multitude of resistant bacteria and a shelf full of ineffective drugs.
Antibiotic resistance exacts a human toll that worsens every year. Health care-associated infections, including those resistant to antibiotics, now account for nearly two million illnesses and kill an estimated 99,000 people annually in the United States. In addition to the loss of human lives, antibiotic resistant infections are responsible for $20 billion in excess health care costs and an additional $35 billion in societal costs annually.
We can never completely eliminate the problem of antibiotic resistance: microbes will continue to evolve beyond even our most powerful drugs. However, we can and must put in place comprehensive, innovative solutions to slow down the spread of resistance—or else we will have no tools in our arsenal.
For example, we must start to view antibiotics in the same way that we think about other precious resources from which we benefit. Just like forests or oil can be depleted, antibiotics can be overused to the point where they no longer work against common bacterial infections. Viewed this way, as a shared resource, we must reorient our approach to preserving antibiotics, using incentive-based policy solutions that call for better infection control in health care facilities, increased development of newer, more powerful antibiotics, and appropriate and judicious use of these ‘wonder’ drugs.
We must all protect this shared resource, and there is one easy way to get started.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommends annual influenza vaccination as soon as it is available in the fall for all persons 6 months of age or older, as an important first step to protect against illness from infection by influenza viruses. Influenza vaccination actually works toward two important public health goals: it reduces the number of flu cases and deaths, and in doing so, it also cuts down on the demand for antibiotics, attenuating the problem of antibiotic resistance.
Health care providers and consumers should know that annual influenza vaccination does more than just protect against influenza – it helps preserve a shared limited resource of effective antibiotics that we all depend on. State and local public health officials should consider this message as they plan vaccination campaigns to get more people to line up for the flu vaccine this year.
It is also a message that every one of us should take to heart. You can do your part to prevent illnesses and preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics–take time to get the flu vaccine. This simple step will help ensure that we continue to have effective antibiotics for ourselves and future generations.
Lauri Hicks, DO, is the Medical Director of CDC’s Get Smart: Know When Antibiotics Work Program , Respiratory Diseases Branch, Division of Bacterial Diseases for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Ga. Seema Jain, MD, is a Medical Epidemiologist for the Epidemiology and Prevention Branch, Influenza Division at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Ga. Ramanan Laxminarayan, PhD, is the director of Extending the Cure (ETC), a research and consultative effort that examines policy solutions to address the growing problem of antibiotic resistance. A project of the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy, ETC is funded in part by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Pioneer Portfolio.