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Globally, antibiotics were way overused during the pandemic


Antibiotics don't treat or cure COVID. They don't help, and yet during the pandemic, COVID patients were given a lot of them. New research shows that overuse of antibiotics has had a lasting impact on superbugs in hospitals. Here's NPR's Gabrielle Emanuel.

GABRIELLE EMANUEL, BYLINE: Antibiotics work against bacterial infections, not against viral infections like COVID. But at the height of the pandemic, doctors in many countries prescribed those antibiotics anyway, just in case it would help.

HELEN BOUCHER: In the beginning of the pandemic, we were very concerned that a bacteria would set up shop on top of the viral pneumonia caused by COVID, and because of that, we overused antibiotics.

EMANUEL: Helen Boucher is Dean of Tufts University School of Medicine and studies antimicrobial resistance.

BOUCHER: At the same time, the people who help to ensure that we use antibiotics the most appropriately were called away from their jobs to focus on caring for COVID patients.

EMANUEL: Now the results are in. New data from the World Health Organization show that globally, about 75% of patients hospitalized with COVID were given antibiotics, despite the fact that only 8% had a bacterial coinfection where antibiotics might have been useful.

BOUCHER: It's sobering to see these data.

EMANUEL: Overusing antibiotics is a problem because it gives bacteria more opportunities to develop resistance to medications. So-called superbugs kill more than a million people every year. When Boucher became a doctor, some 30 years ago, she says it was unheard of in the U.S. to see a patient die of a drug-resistant infection - no longer.

BOUCHER: We now live in a world where I have to see patients for whom I have nothing to offer. I've had to send people home on hospice because we don't have an antibiotic to treat their infection.

EMANUEL: The problem got even worse during the pandemic. Superbug infections in hospitals shot up more than 30%, and now, preliminary data from the National Institutes of Health show that even as the pandemic fades, antibiotic-resistant infections remain stubbornly elevated. They are about 12% above pre-pandemic levels. Sameer Kadri is an epidemiologist at the NIH. He worked on these data. He says scientists need to figure out why the pandemic is having this lingering effect.

SAMEER KADRI: Is it higher antibiotic use? Is it changes in infection control practices and policies?

EMANUEL: Is it continued medical staff shortages?

KADRI: We're not back to our baseline, and I think to consider the status quo as a new normal is a colossal mistake.

EMANUEL: Kadri says patients' lives are on the line if the world can't rein in the superbugs that were unleashed in the pandemic.

Gabrielle Emanuel, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Gabrielle Emanuel
[Copyright 2024 NPR]