Prescribing antibiotics to children in the first years of their life may be exposing them to an increased risk of asthma and obesity later in life, according to the latest research.

This was all the more worrying seeing that Malta has the largest proportion of people in the EU who are prescribed an antibiotic during a calendar year, Prof. Michael Borg, who heads the National Antibiotic Committee, warns.

“There are already numerous factors contributing to asthma and obesity, such as genes and environment, which we have no control over. What we do have control over is antibiotic use so let’s do something about it,” he said.

The human body is colonised by a vast number of microbes, collectively referred to as microbiota, and these take up to a year to recover from antibiotic treatment.

And, if a child gets repeated courses of antibiotics during their first years, the intestinal microbiota may not have time to fully recover, according to research conducted by the University of Helsinki among children aged two to seven.

“We are becoming more and more aware of the importance that the microbiome – the trillions of ‘friendly’ bacteria in the human body – plays in the development of the body, especially in early ages,” Prof. Borg said.

“It would appear that the more antibiotics are administered, especially to children, the greater the risk of disrupting these bacteria in the gut with potential repercussions.”

This, Prof. Borg stressed, was yet another reason for more judicious local prescribing of antibiotics, besides avoiding the potential side effects of antibiotics and the development of resistant superbugs.

It would appear that the more antibiotics are administered, especially to children, the greater the risk of disrupting these bacteria in the gut

The government had embarked on a campaign to encourage doctors to stop wrongly prescribing antibiotics for flu and sore throats “just in case”, but Prof. Borg said that unfortunately, this remained a challenge.

The latest local studies correlated with a 2013 Eurobarometer report showing that more than 70 per cent of antibiotics were prescribed for flu, colds and sore throat; all primarily viral infections for which antibiotics are ineffective.

This was also supported by anecdotal individual case studies showing a widespread – incorrect – perception among doctors that antibiotics should be prescribed in flu “to prevent secondary bacterial infections”, an assertion, Prof. Borg said, that was not evidence-based.

According to statistics published by the European Centre for Disease Control ESAC-Net network, community consumption of antibiotics in Malta has increased by 30 per cent since 2007; with more than 80 per cent originating from private GP prescriptions.

Luckily, “remarkable” progress has been made on other fronts and the message against antibiotic abuse is reaching the public, if not the doctors.

Over-the-counter antibiotics now constitute just one per cent compared to 19 per cent just over a decade ago. This achievement was recently featured as a European success story at the EU Ministerial Meeting on Antibiotic Resistance held by the Dutch Presidency last month.

The state of affairs

• Nearly half of the Maltese polled, 48 per cent, said they had taken antibiotics in a 12-month period; the highest in the EU.

• In Malta, 30 per cent wrongly took antibiotics to combat the flu.

• Another 30 per cent used antibiotics to treat a sore throat, while 11 per cent took them to cure a cold. Antibiotics are ineffective in treating colds and flu, which are caused by viruses.

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