A Third of People Used Antibiotics Without Prescription, WHO Europe Survey Finds

One-third of people in 14 countries in the Western Balkans, the Caucasus and Central Asia used antibiotics without a medical prescription, according to a survey released on Wednesday by the World Health Organization’s (WHO) European Region.

The survey involved 8221 participants, half of whom reported taking oral antibiotics in the past 12 months. 

Participants came from Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Moldova, Tajikistan, Türkiye and Uzbekistan. 

The most common reasons cited for taking the antibiotics were colds (24%), flu-like symptoms (16%), sore throat (21%) and cough (18%). These are often caused by viruses unaffected by antibiotics. 

Across the 14 countries, a third (33%) of respondents consumed antibiotics without a medical prescription, in contrast to 8% of residents in the European Union polled in a similar survey in 2022.

In some countries, more than 40% of the antibiotics were obtained without medical advice.

“Medical expertise is essential to make a correct diagnosis and determine whether antibiotics are the right course of treatment,” WHO Europe stressed.

For some years, the WHO has urged cautious use of antibiotics as pathogens are increasingly developing resistance to them, known as antimicrobial resistance (AMR).

This week is Global AMR Awareness Week. AMR causes an estimated five million deaths annually, with more than half a million deaths occurring in the WHO European Region, which comprises 53 Member States in Europe and Central Asia.  

Different types of antimicrobials – such as antibiotics for bacteria, antivirals for viruses and antifungals for fungi – target specific types of microorganisms. While AMR is a natural phenomenon, the development and spread of superbugs are being accelerated by the misuse of antimicrobials, rendering infections more challenging to treat effectively.  

“The alarming reality is that, without immediate intervention, AMR could result in up to 10 million deaths a year by 2050. Moreover, this burden falls disproportionately on low- and middle-income countries, exacerbating global health inequalities,” according to WHO Europe.

“This research clearly shows the need for education and awareness raising,” said Robb Butler, Director of WHO Europe’s Division of Communicable Diseases, Environment and Health. “All countries in our region have regulations in place to protect precious antibiotics from misuse, for example, preventing over-the-counter sales without a prescription. Enforcing these regulations would solve most antibiotic misuse among humans.”

Image Credits: AMR Industry Alliance.

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