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No Longer Immune

No Longer ImmuneOver-prescribing of antibiotics is weakening an important medical weapon, says a Tufts expert. Boston.

Boston [02.24.03] Over the last 15 years, the antibiotic Cipro has been an important medical treatment for a variety of infections. But a new study shows that while the medication is powerful, overuse of the treatment has reduced its overall effectiveness. And according to a Tufts expert, the myth that there will always be another new cure-all antibiotic is over.

"It's not true anymore," Dr. Stuart B. Levy -- director of the Center for Adaptation Genetics and Drug Resistance at Tufts University School of Medicine -- told the Los Angeles Times. The Tufts professor wrote about the problem in his 2002 book The Antibiotic Paradox: How Miracle Drugs Are Destroying the Miracle.

A study recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that bacteria are increasingly resistant to Cipro. In 1990, 89 percent of bacteria were susceptible to the popular penicillin. By 2000, that number had plummeted to 76 percent.

Levy says that this drastic reduction in effectiveness is largely due to overuse by consumers, who have come to believe that antibiotics can kill everything.

"They believe they're cure-alls; they believe they deserve to have them," Levy -- a past president of the American Society for Microbiology -- told the Times.

Easy access to the medication exacerbates the problem. The Tufts expert told the Times that compliant doctors and on-line pharmacies make it simple for people to unnecessarily acquire - and even stockpile - antibiotics.

"[Levy] cited the example of Americans stockpiling Cipro after it was prescribed to those potentially exposed to anthrax," reported the newspaper.

While some hospitals are now curbing prescriptions in order prevent abuse, Levy says that without a concerted effort, the weakening of antibiotics could escalate into a major health crisis.

"We are sowing the seeds of our own destruction," Levy -- who is president of the international Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics -- told the Times. "[It's difficult to] imagine these fabulous drugs are creating in their wake the biggest problem we've ever faced."

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