Antibiotic use in Australian infants 150% higher than UK, other countries

Friday, 28 July, 2017

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When it comes to antibiotics, Australian infants have one of the highest rates of treatment in the world, increasing the risk of antibiotic resistance. Half of Australian infants are treated with antibiotics during their first year of life according to the Barwon Infant Study, which has been published in the Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health.

The researchers found that 50% of the babies had at least one antibiotic prescription in the first year of life —much higher than almost all comparable industrialised countries. One in eight infants received three or more antibiotic prescriptions. The antibiotic prescription rate is almost 150% higher than the UK and almost 500% higher than Switzerland. Children with siblings were more likely to be prescribed antibiotics, possibly due to the sharing of germs.

Antibiotics were prescribed for common infections, which are often due to viruses, where antibiotics are unnecessary and ineffective. The study, conducted as a partnership between the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, Barwon Health and Deakin University, found that at least 20% of prescriptions were prescribed for what the parents thought were viral infections. Antibiotics were also commonly prescribed for ear infections, where antibiotics are generally ineffective and can usually be avoided.

Compared to data from a study published in 2012, Australia has one of the highest antibiotic prescription rates worldwide and these rates have increased by 230% in the last decade. Antibiotic resistance is a global health emergency. Avoiding unnecessary antibiotic use in babies and children is essential in order to reduce antibiotic resistance and other potential long-term adverse effects of antibiotics.

“Australian babies in this large study were exposed to considerably more antibiotics than the majority of their international counterparts,” lead author Professor David Burgner said.

“A significant proportion of antibiotics appear to be prescribed for viral infections, which do not respond to antibiotics,” he said. “On average, babies suffer around eight viral illnesses per year, so they are really very common, particularly over winter.

“Interventions are needed to support GPs and parents to avoid unnecessary courses of antibiotics. Managing babies with infections in the community is difficult, but it is important to recognise that the vast majority of these illnesses are viral and that antibiotics won’t help. The high rate of antibiotic exposure is concerning given increasing antimicrobial resistance and the reported association with chronic diseases, including asthma and childhood obesity,” Professor Burgner said.

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