Free Antibiotics Do More Harm Than Good?

Filed under: In The News

pill bottleThe pharmacy in my local grocery store is currently offering free antibiotics as part of a health and wellness initiative. To promote the freebies, signs reading "You didn't pay for the germs. Why pay for the antibiotics?" are on display throughout the store. In fact, pharmacies across the country are offering similar promotions, and this has health experts concerned.

On the surface, giving away free antibiotics during a time when many families are struggling to pay for the basics seems like a good idea. But experts worry that this type of promotion sends customers the wrong message about the proper use of antibiotics and may ultimately result our bodies becoming even more resistant to certain drugs.

Antibiotics are prescribed to fight bacterial infections and have no impact whatsoever on cold and flu viruses. And while those signs in my store don't directly connect the free drugs to fighting viruses, they are ambiguous enough that they might be misunderstood by some. And in other pharmacies across the country, free antibiotic promotions have been linked to cold and flu season as if there were a connection.

"Most of the infections during cold and flu season and most times are due to viruses and not the result of bacteria, so antibiotics don't work," said Dr. Neil Fishman of the Infectious Diseases Society of America. "This is exactly the time we don't want to encourage antibiotic use."

Not only will antibiotics not rid the body of cold and flu viruses, taking them unnecessarily can actually do some harm. "Giving away antibiotics could lead to stockpiling of drugs. We need to control antibiotic use very carefully, because more and more bacteria are becoming resistant to antibiotics," says Dr. Anne Gershon, president of the Infectious Diseases Society.

Of course doctors know better than to prescribe antibiotics for a virus, but experts worry that these free offers will result in patients pressuring them for a prescription. "If you give antibiotics away, it sort of implies that we should use them rather freely," says Dr. Gershon.

At the urging of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some stores that were promoting free antibiotics by linking them to the cold and flu season have since revised their advertising to exclude that reference. That's all well and good, but do pharmacies who give away free drugs have a responsibility to educate patients on their proper use? Jamie Miller, public affairs manager for Giant Food, doesn't think so. "We trust that doctors will write prescriptions for antibiotics based on the best interests of their patients," he says.

What do you think?

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