Australian babies are being overprescribed antibiotics and it is bad news

Half of all Australian babies receive antibiotics at least once during their first year of life, according to new research that reveals we have one of the highest antibiotic usage rates in the world. With health risks including longterm side effects and antibiotic resistance, it’s no wonder the experts are concerned.

Alarming statistics

Published in The Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health last month, the large study revealed that fifty percent of Aussie kids are prescribed antibiotics at least once before they turn one, with one in eight receiving three or more prescriptions. This is at a much higher rate than the majority of our international counterparts.

In fact, Australia’s prescription rate for antibiotics for infants in the first twelve months was almost 150 percent higher than the UK and almost 500 percent higher than Switzerland. Of the countries included in the data, only Italy prescribed more antibiotics to children than Australia.

Cause for concern

There is a wide belief that the use of antibiotics has a negative impact on healthy bacteria in the body – something co-lead investigator of the study, Professor Peter Vuillerman from Deakin University, highlighted as a concern for babies.

“These changes in the composition and metabolic activity of our healthy bacteria are associated with chronic health problems so we really need to think about how we reduce antibiotic use in infants,” he said.

The researchers are now investigating whether exposure to antibiotics has affected children’s gut bacteria and its connection to the development of other health concerns such as allergies, asthma, eczema and obesity.

A global emergency

Excessive use of antibiotics has also been proven to increase the body’s resistance to them, with the World Health Organisation (WHO) recently describing the rising antimicrobial resistance as a ‘global health emergency.’ The reason for this is that it’s believed if the problem increases, soon many operations and treatments, from chemotherapy and organ transplants to caesareans and hip replacements, will become potentially fatal.

Do babies really need antibiotics?

Worryingly, the research uncovered that many of the children in the study were prescribed antibiotics for conditions that would be ineffective as a treatment, such as viral upper respiratory tract infections and bronchiolitis. The most common reason for prescribing antibiotics in children was for ear infections; which is at odds with Australian health guidelines that don’t recommend it as the first course of action because the jury is still out on how effective it really is at treating the infection.

However, the study did also find that the highest rate of antibiotic exposure for Aussie babies is in the first month of their life, when they’re given intravenous antibiotics to prevent serious bacterial infections. While in some cases this is life-saving, research is now going to be conducted to uncover whether they can actually treat less babies this way or for a shorter period.

How to know when babies do need antibiotics

According to Professor Vuillerman, if your baby is older than one month, a way to determine whether they need antibiotics or not is to look at the following:

A – Are they alert for periods, compared to being persistently drowsy?

B – Is their breathing normal?

C – Is their colour normal? Pale and feverish babies have a higher risk of bacterial infection

Fluids in – Have they drunk more than 50 percent of what they normally would in 24 hours?

Fluids out – Have they had more than four wet nappies in 24 hours?

If the answer is yes to all of the above, then your baby has a low risk of serious bacterial infection. It’s best to wait and watch to see if their symptoms worsen, however still schedule a doctor visit for the following day.

If the answer is no, or you have any other concerns for your baby’s health, please speak to your doctor immediately.

Do you think babies are given too many antibiotics?

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