'The damage is done': Experts warn about superbugs, antibiotic overuse amid pandemic

Increased misuse and overuse of antibiotics amid the pandemic may be exacerbating antibiotic resistance, according to a Jan. 28 report by National Geographic.

In 2019, the U.S. recorded more than 2.8 million antibiotic-resistant infections and more than 35,000 deaths, according to the CDC. Now, antibiotic overuse during the pandemic may be making it worse

Early in the pandemic, many COVID-19 patients were prescribed antibiotics for cough, fever, shortness of breath and X-rays revealing lung inflammation resembling bacterial pneumonia. 

"When you deal with uncertainty, you err on the side of the prescribing, which is not necessarily the right thing to do," Jacqueline Bork, MD, an infectious disease physician at Baltimore-based University of Maryland Medical Center, told National Geographic. "Many of us were probably overprescribing a good amount of antibiotics. But without a firm understanding of what we were dealing with, we did the best we could at the time."

According to a World Health Organization survey taken in late 2020, 35 of 56 countries reported a jump in antibiotic prescriptions. 

Antibiotics only kill bacteria and are not effective against viruses like SARS-CoV-2. Some physicians have reduced antibiotic use as newer studies have suggested that fungal and bacterial co-infections occur in less than 20 percent of COVID-19 patients. However, severely ill patients with longer hospital stays still may require antibiotics. Experts are warning that more superbugs and increasingly ineffective antibiotics may lead to prolonged hospital stays, higher medical costs and more deaths.  

Amid worldwide staffing shortages, the Global Antimicrobial Resistance and Use Surveillance System, launched by the WHO in 2015, hasn't had as many resources to report on drug-resistant microbes. While data may not directly reveal a rise of superbugs and its effects just yet, "the damage is done," Pilar Ramon-Pardo, MD, regional adviser on antimicrobial resistance at the Pan American Health Organization, told National Geographic. 


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