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Federal campaign aims stop antibiotic overuse

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Posted on Wed, Sep. 17, 2003

Federal campaign aims to stop overuse of antibiotics
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

CHICAGO - (KRT) - Expect sympathy for the misery of a runny nose or ear infection, but don't expect an antibiotic.

That's the message of a new campaign federal officials launched Wednesday to try to persuade people - especially mothers of young children - to stop asking doctors to prescribe antibiotics in situations where they don't do any good and could cause harm. The pilot project for the campaign was conducted in Wisconsin.

Taking the drugs the wrong way or for the wrong illnesses is making them lose their punch against the germs they were designed to fight and creating more "superbugs" that are harder to treat.

"Antibiotics have been viewed as miracle drugs, and they are for the right infections, but over 40 percent of the time they're being used where they just don't work," said Richard Besser, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doctor leading the campaign.

These include most cases of colds, coughs and sinus infections, which usually are caused by viruses that antibiotics don't kill. Even most of the ear infections that are bacterial will get better on their own without antibiotics.

"There just isn't a magic pill for everything," said Peter Pitts, an associate commissioner at the Food and Drug Administration.

The FDA, the CDC, several professional associations of physicians and drug companies announced the campaign Wednesday at the American Society for Microbiology's annual meeting on infectious diseases.

The CDC will spend $1.6 million for radio, television and print ads with the message "Snort, sniffle, sneeze. No antibiotics, please." Drug companies are financing distribution of materials in doctors' offices through separate grants to the CDC Foundation.

A recent CDC survey found that 48 percent of adults think that if they're sick enough to go to a doctor, they need an antibiotic.

"We've got to change the question. Instead of asking their doctor for an antibiotic, they should ask what they can do to feel better sooner," and that usually means resting for a few days and getting enough fluids to help the body heal by itself, Besser said.

Antibiotics "are quickly becoming ineffective because of overuse," said Michael Fleming, president-elect of the American Academy of Family Physicians.

About one in four samples of Streptococcus pneumoniae, the leading cause of middle ear infections and pneumonia cases requiring hospitalization, is resistant to penicillin. Resistant germs are developing in some cases even before a drug gets to the market, when they're still being tested in clinical trials.

"We're running out of effective drugs," Besser said.

The CDC funded a five-year pilot project in Wisconsin to try to help doctors and patients use antibiotics more appropriately.

The campaign first focused on educating doctors to make sure they knew when antibiotics were and weren't needed. For instance, doctors were told that the color of a child's nasal discharge isn't an indicator of a need for prescription.

"Having a green or yellow runny nose does not distinguish between a viral infection such as the common cold or a bacterial infection," said Ed Belongia, the Marshfield Clinic physician who headed the Wisconsin project.

Surveys showed doctors got the message.

"We saw a very major improvement" in Wisconsin, Belongia said, with the number who understood the nasal discharge issue increasing from 34 percent in 1999 to 61 percent in 2002.

"I think we've learned a lot of lessons from Wisconsin," and now are trying to focus on patients' attitudes, the CDC's Besser said.


The campaign comes as several large drug-makers have said they're cutting back on developing new drugs because of difficulty testing them, making enough money from them before resistance develops, and other reasons.

"A large number of pharmaceutical companies have left the field or spun off their research especially for anti-bacterials," said Steven Projan, a microbiologist and research official at Wyeth in Cambridge, Mass.

"There is a public health danger in the loss of this research," said David Shlaes, executive vice president of research and development at Identics Pharmaceuticals in Cambridge, Mass.


For more information on antibiotic resistance, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Web site, or call (888) 246-2675.


2003, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Visit JSOnline, the Journal Sentinel's World Wide Web site, at

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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