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Antibiotic use in France dropped by almost 20% over Covid crisis

Health authorities have hailed the drop as a good thing, after years of campaigning to reduce excess use of antibiotics in the country

A pharmacist holding medicines in a pharmacy

Antibiotic prescriptions and daily use of the drugs dropped by almost 20% in 2020 compared to the year before Pic: i viewfiner / Shutterstock

Antibiotic use in France has dropped by almost 20% over the course of the Covid pandemic, which has been attributed to a drop in infections due to lockdown and distancing measures.

In 2020, daily use of antibiotics dropped year-on-year by 17%, while antibiotic prescriptions have dropped by 18%, a new study, by le Bulletin épidémiologique hebdomadaire (BEH), said on November 18, European Antibiotic Awareness Day.

Prescriptions for young children (aged 0-4 and 5-14) dropped the most, which health body Santé publique France (SPF) said was most likely due to fewer GP appointments. “GPs are mainly the ones giving these prescriptions out (72% in 2020), but this dropped (by 24.9% in 2020),” it said.

Antibiotic prescriptions from specialists dropped by 15.2%, while those from dentists – which had previously risen by 9.3% between 2010 and 2019 – dropped by 4.9% in 2020.

This has been attributed to people having fewer respiratory and digestive infections, due to social distancing and extra hygiene measures put in place to combat Covid.

The number of GP consultations also dropped as a result of lockdowns and Covid restrictions meaning the number of prescriptions for antibiotics was also reduced.

Use of the drug penicillin, whose use soared by 55.2% between 2010 and 2019, is largely used to fight infections of the lungs, throat, nose and ears, the digestive and reproductive systems, mouth and teeth.

Campaigns to reduce antibiotic use

Yet, along with the global medical community, French health authorities have long tried to lower people’s use of antibiotics. 

Misuse of the drugs – for example, prescribing them too much, or for use cases where they are not the most suitable – can lead bacteria to become resistant, resulting in antibiotics becoming less effective or ineffective overall.

In 2001-2002, a campaign by l’Assurance maladie had the slogan: ‘Les antibiotiques, c’est pas automatique (Antibiotics are not automatic)’ in a bid to address the overconsumption of the drugs. The campaign appeared to have worked, as consumption dropped by 19% between 2000 and 2003. 

However by 2013 use had risen again despite a new campaign in 2010 that urged: ‘Utilisés à tort, ils seront moins forts (Used wrongly, they will be less effective)’. Use dropped 15% between 2013-2019.

SPF has previously stated: “This formidable invention is today a victim of its own success.” 

The drop in antibiotic use in France over 2020 has therefore been hailed as a good thing.  

Professor Céline Pulcini, an infectious disease specialist in charge of the ministry of health’s infection prevention and antibiotic resistance project, said: “France is one of the top 5 European countries for antibiotic consumption.”

Reducing antibiotic use comes down to two factors: controlling the spread of infections, and encouraging responsible use of the drugs.

In France, SPF figures suggest that around half of antibiotic prescriptions do not work or are wrongly given. 

The health body has even said that this misuse is the cause of 5,543 deaths per year in France, with 124,806 patients developing an infection linked to resistant bacteria. 

SPF is now preparing an awareness campaign on the dangers of antibiotic misuse for health professionals, followed by a public campaign over 2022-2023.

Professor Pulcini said: “We hope that these good habits will continue.”

Same drop in Europe

The drop observed in France has also been seen throughout Europe, “even in countries where the use of antibiotics was already very moderate”, SPF said.

In Denmark and Germany, where antibiotic use is already low, prescriptions dropped by 15% and 24% respectively, over the period of April-December 2020, compared to 2019.

The cost of antibiotic misuse in Europe has been estimated at €1.5billion. In the US, the problem is even worse; the amount has been calculated at US $55billion (€48.5billion).

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