Improper use of antibiotics kills thousands and harms millions every year, CDC says

    Simple steps in the doctor's office and the supermarket can help keep you safe

    Published: September 16, 2013 12:00 PM

    Misuse of antibiotics harms million of people each year and kills thousands, according to a report out today from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It says that up to half of the antibiotics prescribed by doctors each year are either given unnecessarily or used improperly. The report also suggests that the widespread use of antibiotics in livestock may pose additional threats.

    In response to the growing crisis, Consumer Reports has initiated or is participating in several initiatives that aim to rein in antibiotic overuse in health care and on farms.

    Antibiotics in health care

    Much of the harm comes when doctors and patients overuse antibiotic drugs, a practice that breeds superbugs, such as methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), that are resistant to antibiotics. Such antibiotic-resistant infections sicken at least 2 million people annually, and kill 23,000, according to the CDC.

    Misuse of antibiotic drugs harm in another way, too, by destroying the good bacteria that normally live in your gut. For example, almost 250,000 hospital patients each year are infected with the bacterium Clostridium difficile, or C. diff, and 14,000 of them die. Those infections develop when antibiotics, which are often prescribed unnecessarily in the hospital, wipe out protective bacteria than normally live in your stomach, allowing C. diff to get a foothold.

    Antibiotics on the farm

    The new CDC report also addresses the use of antibiotics on farms. It notes that antibiotics are often used in food animals to prevent, control, and treat disease, and to promote the growth of food-producing animals. But it says routinely using antibiotics to promote growth is not necessary and should be phased out.

    Just as overuse of drugs in human medicine can lead resistant bacteria, farm use can also promote resistance. In our recent tests on ground turkey, we found that bacteria on meat from turkeys that were raised without antibiotics were resistant to fewer antibiotics than the bacteria found on turkeys that were raised with antibiotics.

    What's being done

    Consumer Reports is working on several front to control the problem of misused antibiotis.

    Over the last 18 months, multiple medical groups, such as the American Academy of Family Physicians and the American Academy of Pediatrics, have identified common conditions for which antibiotics are being overused. Those include problems such as mild sinusitis, the common cold, and eye and ear infections. The effort is part of a campaign called Choosing Wisely, a program that aims to reduce waste and harm in medical care. It is led by Consumer Reports and the ABIM Foundation, a group formed by the American Board of Internal Medicine.

    Our hospital Ratings also address the problem by including some information on infection rates in hospitals. That can help you identify hospitals that do a good job of controlling infections. And making that information public may motivate hospitals to take steps to reduce infections. The CDC has urged hospitals to better track and report information on resistant infections. We agree.

    Consumers Union's Safe Patient Project is also focusing on the problem of improper antibiotic use in hospitals. It's grassroots activists, many whom have survived or lost a loved one to antibiotic-resistant infections, work in their communities, states, and nationally for public transparency of infection rates and for improved prevention in health care settings. They were instrumental in getting states to pass infection reporting laws that eventually influenced a national program reporting infections from most U.S. hospitals.

    To address the use of antibiotics on farms, Consumer Union's Meat Without Drugs campaign has called on major supermarkets to stop selling meat or poultry that comes from animals routinely fed antibiotics for growth promotion or disease prevention. And it is asking Trader Joe's to lead the way.

    What you can do

    There are a number of steps you can take, too:

    • Don't ask your health care provider for antibiotics for viral infections, such as the common cold, that don't respond to antibiotics. And if your doctor recommends an antibiotic, ask if it's really necessary.
    • Take steps to protect yourself from infections while you are in the hospital, and make sure that hospital staff does what it should, too. For tips, see our Hospital Survival Guide.
    • Take steps to avoid infections in general by, for example, getting the appropriate vaccinations. The newer pneumonia vaccine is effective against resistant strains of the most common pneumonia bacteria, for example. See our recommended vaccinations for children and adults.
    • When shopping, look for meat that is labeled "raised without antibiotics" or "organic." Read our advice on making sense of food labels.

    —Joel Keehn

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