Antibiotic treatments from GPs ‘fail 15% of the time’,” BBC News reports. In one of the largest studies of its kind, researchers estimated that just under one in seven antibiotic prescriptions in 2011 “failed”.
This study examined the failure rates of antibiotics prescribed by GPs in the UK for common infections over a 21-year period – from 1991 to 2012. Most of the failures (94%) were cases where a different antibiotic needed to be prescribed within 30 days, suggesting that the first antibiotic had not worked.
In general, the overall failure rate remained fairly static over the course of three decades; 13.9% in 1991 only increased to 15.4% by 2012.
When considering specific types of infection in combination with specific classes of antibiotics, there were notable changes in failure rates. For example, when the antibiotic trimethoprim was prescribed for an upper respiratory tract infection, failure rates increased from 25% in 1991 to 56% in 2012. Reassuringly, failure rates with commonly prescribed antibiotics (such as amoxicillin) currently remain fairly low.
The study did not look at the reasons for antibiotic failure, but one reason could be antibiotic resistance – an increasing problem worldwide.
If you are prescribed an antibiotic, you can increase the chances of it working and decrease the risk of antibiotic resistance by ensuring that you take the full course as prescribed by your GP, even when you start to feel better.
Where did the story come from?
The study was carried out by researchers from Cardiff and Oxford universities, and Abbott Healthcare Products in the Netherlands, who also funded the study.
While the overall reporting by the UK media was broadly accurate, many of the headlines were not.
The Daily Telegraph claimed that “Up to half of antibiotics ‘fail due to superbugs’”.
We don’t actually know the reason for needing another antibiotic prescription, as this was not examined in this study. Therefore, we don’t know that any of these apparent antibiotic failures were due to “superbugs” as no laboratory data was available.
The Daily Mail claims that, “Now one in seven patients cannot be cured using antibiotics”, which is also not correct. It could well be the case that many patients were cured through the use of alternative antibiotics.