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Kenneth Calman on the dangers of overusing antibiotics
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The BBC's Jan O'Brien on antibiotics
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The BBC's Richard Hannaford on the new guidelines
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Tuesday, 28 September, 1999, 10:23 GMT 11:23 UK
Curb on antibiotics
Too many antibiotics could be bad for your health
The government has published new guidelines on the prescribing of antibiotics amid fears that overprescription is leading to the rise of drug-resistant diseases.

The Standing Medical Advisory Committee of the Department of Health published its report, The Path of Least Resistance, on Thursday.

It makes five main recommendations:

  • A national education campaign be set up to explain to patients that they should not expect antibiotics when they go to their GP
  • GPs should not prescribe antibiotics for conditions caused by viruses, such as coughs and colds since they are effective only against bacterial illnesses
  • Healthy women with uncomplicated cystitis should only be prescribed antibiotics for three days
  • Antibiotics should not be prescribed over the phone
  • They should not be prescribed for viral sore throats.

The government is to use the recommendations for a national framework on antibiotic use, to be announced later this year.

Public health minister Tessa Jowell said: "Our job is to translate the experts' recommendations into a framework for policy that can ensure patients derive the full benefits from antibiotics."


The report is based on research by a sub-group of the committee on areas such as the problems of bugs which develop resistance to treatment, how doctors are contributing to the rise and how this can be prevented.

Research was initiated in response to widespread concern among the medical profession in the UK and elsewhere about the growth of drug-resistant superbugs such as MRSA.

The government's Chief Medical Officer Sir Kenneth Calman said: "Antibiotics have revolutionised medical care during the 20th century - without them, many of the major technological advances in treatment would not have been possible.

"But overuse of antibiotics can speed up the process of resistance."

He added that the advice was for both doctors and patients.

Kenneth Calman
Kenneth Calman: overuse of antibiotics can speed up resistance
"Doctors are very aware of the problems with antibiotics and the public do have a responsibility if their doctor says they should not be given antibiotics to recognise that that is a good clinical decision, not a bad one," he said.

Diane Walford, head of the Public Laboratory Service, said the recommendations would hopefully allow the pharmaceutical industry to "buy time" to develop new drugs.

The British Medical Association has welcomed the report and it backs a decision by the Doctor Patient Partnership (DPP), a group set up by doctors and the government in 1996 to encourage appropriate use of the NHS, to relaunch its Antibiotics: not a miracle cure! campaign.

Judy Walford
Judy Walford: guidelines could buy drug industry time
The campaign includes an updated leaflet about problems associated with antibiotic use, such as inappropriate prescription, failure to take a complete course of pills and side effects.

Claire Rayner of the Patients' Association has rejected claims that patients are to blame for overprescription of antibiotics.

She accused GPs of "slapdash prescribing" of drugs, although she admitted that patients needed to understand that they did not need to go to their GP for every ache and pain.

House of Lords

A recent Health Which? report said over 15% of patients had been incorrectly prescribed antiobiotics for viral illnesses such as flu.

In April, a House of Lords select committee expressed great concern over the situation and called the new superbugs a major threat to public health.

The British Medical Association debated the problem of superbugs at its annual conference.

This followed research showing that one in 10 people contracted illnesses while in hospital, many of them from bugs such as MRSA.

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See also:

08 Oct 99 | Antibiotics
Dos and don'ts of taking antibiotics
08 Sep 99 | Antibiotics
A brief history of antibiotics
13 Nov 98 | Antibiotics
Superbug threat looms ever larger
23 Jun 98 | Health
Fears over antibiotic policy
15 Jul 98 | Health
'Don't panic over superbugs'
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