Free Antibiotics Promotions Criticized

In January we wrote about a promotional antibiotic giveaway campaign that had the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) concerned. Now, MSNBC is reporting that while giving away free antibiotics during the current economic downturn might have seemed the right course of action, health experts disagree.

Both the IDSA and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) wrote to five major retailers urging them to reconsider the promotion, explaining that the antibiotic giveaways adds to a growing problem involving drug resistant bugs that stems from <"">antibiotic abuse and overuse, said MSNBC. “We were a little alarmed, especially when they suggested they’d be doing it during cold and flu season. We know that antibiotics aren’t effective for cold and flu. We don’t want to perpetuate the idea that they are,” said Dr. Lauri Hicks, medical director of the CDC’s program on appropriate antibiotic use.

Stores—such as Wegmans, ShopRite, Stop and Shop, and Giant Food—argue that they only fill doctor-mandated prescriptions, said MSNBC. “We feel like it’s a way to help our customers out during tough economic times,” said Jamie Miller, a spokesman for the 182-store chain Giant Food, quoted MSNBC. Experts disagree saying that the promotion prompts consumers to request antibiotics, noting that doctors often prescribe antibiotics just because a patient asked for the medications, said MSNBC. As a matter-of-fact, a study published last year in the British Medical Journal revealed that in some cases, doctors prescribe antibiotics like placebos for those patients who insist on leaving with a prescription. “It’s much easier to give someone an antibiotic than it is to explain to someone why they don’t need it,” said Dr. Ed Septimus, an internist who helped write the letters sent by the IDSA, said MSNBC.

“I was actually driving to work and saw this huge billboard that said ‘Come to Wegmans for free antibiotics,’” said Ann Marie Pettis, director of infection prevention at the University of Rochester Medical Center in Rochester, New York. “Here we are all working so hard to control the use of antibiotics and then to see something that’s well-intentioned but obviously ill-advised was surprising,” she added, said MSNBC.

Some say that the promotions bring in customers who will spend money on other items, a good deal given that the stores are spending pennies on the medications, said MSNBC. But, experts are concerned that the giveaways only add to the drug resistance problems that have now include superbugs such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), and Clostridium difficile (C. diff), both of which can be seriously dangerous, even fatal.

Also, said MSNBC, about 142,000 annual emergency department visits are linked antibiotic use, many of which are allergic reactions, according to a recent study in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases. “The fact is that antibiotics are not harmless,” said Hicks, the CDC specialist. “There’s a perception that antibiotics are like candy,” quoted MSNBC. Hicks also noted that she has urged the stores to help raise awareness of antibiotic use via the CDC’s program, “Get Smart: Know When Antibiotics Work.” Wegmans is one store which may be stocking the CDC information with the free antibiotics. Wegmans spokeswoman Jo Natale said Wegmans was surprised that health experts and doctors had such strong reactions. “Did we go to public health officials and ask their advice? We did not,” she said. “We should have had those conversations,” reported MSNBC.

It is a known medical fact that antibiotics do nothing to alleviate viral illnesses and their use carries risks. For instance, Cipro, an antibiotic in the fluoroquinolone group is used to treat bacterial infections and is linked to serious tendon injury and rupture; Levaquin has also been found to increase the risk of tendonitis and tendon ruptures. According to an earlier report by the Atlanta Constitution-Journal, the tendon risks associated with fluoroquinolones have been known for close to 20 years. Critics of fluoroquinolone antibiotics argue that the drugs were developed and put on the fast track for U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval without adequate pre-market testing to accurately determine the probability of certain side effects. After gaining approval, the new antibiotics were aggressively marketed. According to the Atlanta Constitution-Journal, in 2007, U.S. patients received more than 40 million prescriptions for fluoroquinolone antibiotics.

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