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Breeding Superbugs

SuperbugsResearchers have been tracking the increase of the global spread of antimicrobial-resistant infections, also known as superbugs. But the reason for this increase surprised the researchers — drug co-pays seem to have increased superbugs.

Superbugs are defined as “strains of bacteria that have changed (or mutated) after coming into contact with an antibiotic. Once this happens, these bacteria are ‘resistant’ to the antibiotic to which they have been exposed, which means the antibiotic can’t kill the bacteria or stop them from multiplying.”

Many individuals may suggest going back to a doctor and receiving a new prescription for a different antibiotic. But in the developing world, many individuals cannot afford the co-pays for multiple doctor visits, let alone the cost of multiple antibiotic prescriptions.

With the rising costs of prescriptions, many individuals are turning to informal or black markets for their prescriptions. The pills that they buy from black markets may be lower quality, prescribed inappropriately or dosed incorrectly. All of these factors can lead to the spread of superbugs.

According to an analysis of data from 47 countries published in the Lancet Infectious Disease Journal, the amount people spend out-of-pocket on healthcare has turned out to be a better predictor of antibiotic resistance than poverty, sanitation or livestock production.

In the first major report last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) has called antibiotic resistance “a growing public health threat.” This report, which tallied the level of antibiotic resistance in each country, warned that “many of the available treatment options for common infections in some settings are becoming ineffective.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control, each year superbugs cause 2 million people in the United States to become sick, killing 23,000. With the advanced healthcare available in the United States, what effects do superbugs have on the developing world?

With the WHO report in mind, researchers from Stanford University in California and Gandhi Medical College & Hospital in India set out to determine whether the levels of resistance in low and middle income countries were linked to the direct healthcare costs that patients pay.

The researchers found that in countries where patients paid a higher share of healthcare costs, there was a higher level of antibiotic resistance. But this was also only evident in countries that charge co-payments for prescriptions.

While this data does not prove that higher prescription costs cause greater antibiotic resistance, it does show that the two are linked.

Co-payments are usually used to discourage people from seeking unnecessary healthcare but are currently having the opposite effect. With higher co-payments, patients that cannot afford the cost must look elsewhere for their prescriptions: the black market.

Not only are patients endangering themselves with unknown prescriptions and doses, but they are also enabling antibiotic resistance. There needs to be a change so that patients are able to receive needed antibiotics at a reasonable price. If not, antibiotic resistance will become a major problem in the future.

– Kerri Szulak

Sources: ABC Health & Wellbeing, Bloomberg Business
Photo: Live Science