Fast Test May Curb Overuse of Antibiotics

By Peter Russell
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Sheena Meredith, MD

Nov. 7, 2014 -- A quick, on-the-spot test for bacterial infections could cut the number of unnecessary prescriptions for antibiotics being handed out by doctors.

A review of previous trials, done by Danish researchers, found that a 3-minute test on a single drop of blood could give a doctor all the information needed to decide whether or not to issue a prescription.

Antibiotics can treat bacterial infections. They're of no use against viruses. But doctors often prescribe antibiotics as a precaution, because a patient's symptoms could be caused by a bacterial infection or a virus.

Also, some doctors get pressured by patients who wrongly believe that antibiotics will help them recover faster from a viral infection like a cold.

Drug Resistance

Unnecessary use of antibiotics gives bacteria more chances to develop resistance to the drugs. That means common antibiotics are increasingly powerless in treating serious bacterial infections when they do happen.

One way to tackle this problem would be to offer on-the-spot tests that can help doctors better target antibiotic use in people who have bacterial infections.

The latest review, published in The Cochrane Library, looked at evidence from six trials on the use of the C-reactive protein test, which is the only on-the-spot kit available to doctors intended to help them decide whether to prescribe antibiotics.

C-reactive protein acts as a sign, or biomarker, of inflammation. So, if the test finds low levels of C-reactive protein, the doctor can rule out serious bacterial infection and advise the patient that antibiotics are unnecessary.

Lower Prescription Rates

The data involving a total of 3,284 patients found that 631 out of the 1,685 people who took the test were prescribed antibiotics, compared to 785 out of the 1,599 people who did not take the test. This meant that, overall, antibiotic use was 22% lower in the group who were tested.

In a statement, lead researcher Rune Aabenhus from the University of Copenhagen says: "These results suggest that antibiotic use in patients with acute respiratory infections could be reduced by carrying out biomarker tests in addition to routine examinations. Going forward, it would be useful to see more evidence on the size of the reduction and cost-savings, as well as how these tests compare to other antibiotic-saving approaches."

"This result may have been a chance finding, but it does remind us that general practitioners need to be careful about how they use these tests," Aabenhus says.

Tougher measures to control antibiotic resistance need to be taken in the coming years to avoid the possibility of it becoming the "next pandemic," CDC Director Tom Frieden, MD, said in July.

"Antimicrobial resistance has the potential to harm or kill anyone in the country, undermine modern medicine, to devastate our economy, and to make our health care system less stable," Frieden said at a National Press Club event, according to USA Today.

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SOURCES: Aabenhus, R. The Cochrane Library, November 2014. HealthDay: "Antibiotic Resistance a Growing Threat: CDC Head."

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