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Science Saturday Lucerne research finds how to cut antibiotic overuse in babies

Too much of a good thing: while antibiotics can fight dangerous bacterial infections, they can also harm other microorganisms in the body that play helpful roles in immunity and other systems. 

(Keystone)

An international team of researchers has successfully tested a way of targeting antibiotic therapy in new-born babies, thereby avoiding unnecessary treatment and side effects.

The aim of the six-year study, which was led by Lucerne’s Children’s Hospital, was to find a way to better target antibiotic use in babies who may be suffering from sepsis – a potentially fatal reaction to a bacterial infection.

Because sepsis is so dangerous, especially in very young babies, doctors will often immediately administer antibiotics to infants who show signs of it – even before test results are available.

According to the study authors, in Europe and North America, up to 7% of all new-born babies receive antibiotics within their first three days of life to prevent a possible bacterial infection before it is too late.

However, only 0.1% of infants have such an infection, which the study authors wrote “suggests substantial overtreatment”.

Such overuse of powerful antibiotics can have a damaging effect on an infant’s still-developing immune system – notably the microbiomeexternal link. Disruption of the body’s microorganisms has been linked to several chronic conditions, including allergies, obesity, diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease.

Fast and reliable

To find a better approach, the researchers studied over 1,700 infant subjects from 18 hospitals across Europe and Canada – including four in Switzerland. Roughly half the infants received the standard treatment, while the other half received doses of antibiotics based on their blood levels of a protein called procalcitonin, which can indicate a bacterial infection in the body.  

The researchers found that the procalcitonin test, which was fast and required only a small sample of blood, was a reliable method for better targeting antibiotic treatment, and for reducing the overall duration of antibiotic therapy.

"Thanks to the findings of the study, the duration of antibiotic therapy in [newborns] with evidence of a bacterial infection will be significantly reduced," said Martin Stocker of Lucerne’s Children’s Hospital in a statement on Tuesday. 

The study results have been published in The Lancetexternal link, one of the world’s most respected medical journals. 

National strategy

The method could become a useful resource as Switzerland moves toward more 'rational, targeted' antibiotic use, as part of a Federal Office of Public Health programme aimed at combating antibiotic resistance.

As part of this programme, Switzerland's Antibiotic Awareness Weekexternal link will be held this year from November 13-19, with the goal of encouraging "the general public and health professionals to learn more about the careful use of antibiotics and antibiotic resistance".

swissinfo.ch/cl


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