Antibiotics and superbugs: the relationship
Making sure antibiotics are only taken when absolutely necessary is something that will help fight the spread of superbugs, says Professor Cheryl Jones.
Australian babies are being given antibiotics at rates drastically higher than those in other industrialised countries, a new study has found.
The findings suggest fearful parents and doctors are treating infants with medication they may not need and come despite warnings that the overuse of antibiotics is fuelling a "global health emergency" by creating deadly superbugs.
The Murdoch Children's Research Institute study found half of Australian babies were being exposed to antibiotics in their first year of life.
The average prescription rate is almost double that for Germany and 360 per cent higher than it is in Switzerland.
Italy was the only country of the eight examined to have higher antibiotic consumption in babies.
Australian children with siblings were more likely to be prescribed antibiotics.
Researchers say a third of the antibiotics were given for ear infections, a condition for which, the institute says, antibiotics are generally ineffective and can usually be avoided.
Lead author Professor David Burgner also said a significant proportion of antibiotics appear to be prescribed for viral infections, which do not respond to antibiotics.
"On average, babies suffer around eight viral illnesses per year, so they are really very common, particularly over winter," he said.
Professor Burgner said over-prescribing of antibiotics was a concern not only because of increasing drug resistance globally, but also because of a suspected link between antibiotics, asthma and childhood obesity.
The study identified parental pressure as a factor driving inappropriate prescribing, but overcautious doctors could also be at play.
"The main thing that drives the overuse of antibiotics is fear," said Associate Professor Penelope Bryant, chair of the paediatric arm of the Australasian Society for Infectious Diseases.
"It's fear for parents that their child is seriously unwell.
"It's fear from doctors, often GPs, that they might get it wrong and something serious will happen to the child.
"We also live in quite a litigious society and I think there is always a fear among doctors that if they do get it wrong that they'll be consequences from a legal standpoint."
Professor Bryant called for GPs to be routinely given information comparing their prescribing habits against their colleagues and also information on the latest superbugs emerging in the community.
The Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health study focussed on 660 babies from regional Victoria, including Myles Guthridge, who is now aged four.
Mother Tania Fernandes said Myles had been prescribed antibiotics multiple times, including when he got a staph infection as a newborn and later for recurring throat and ear infections.
Ms Fernandes said she eventually started questioning the antibiotic prescriptions provided by the family's GP.
Her youngest son, Theodore, aged five months, has not yet needed antibiotics.
"I just think being a first time mum you put your faith in GPs. Every time we went to the GP I would be prescribed the antibiotics," Ms Fernandes said.
But Professor Peter Vuillermin, a paediatrician who also led the infant study, warned against "GP bashing".
He said hospital paediatricians also sometimes gave babies intravenous antibiotics as a precaution against rare illnesses.
"This is a real grey zone," he said.
"When you do have a young baby who is unwell with a fever and a cough, for example, it is very difficult to choose not to give antibiotics because of that concern you might be missing a serious, life-threatening bacterial illness.
"While those [illnesses] have become very rare they still do occasionally occur and they are devastating for everyone who is involved."