Malta's love affair with antibiotics

Despite clear evidence that antibiotics should be given sparingly, two in five Maltese have taken antibiotics in the past year, many of them for no valid medical reason.

Daiva Repeckaite
Daiva Repeckaite NewsMavens, Malta
Malta's love affair with antibiotics - NewsMavens
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Why this story matters:

'Tis the season when my co-nationals far away subsist on Coldrex while all those around me in Malta are on antibiotics. The climate and related environmental factors couldn't be more different, but their ailments are the same -- some coughs, some colds, and the looming seasonal flu. But the Maltese's promptness to reach for antibiotics at the first sign of illness is becoming a concern for authorities.

Last month, the Maltese government announced reducing the prices of popular medicines, including antibiotics, to make healthcare more accessible. In parallel, the Ministry for Health and the Ministry for the Environment, Sustainable Development and Climate Change was working on "A Strategy and Action Plan for the Prevention and Containment of Antimicrobial Resistance in Malta 2018-2025". The consultation document was launched last week and notes that AMR affects humans as well as animals.

Across Europe, 25,000 deaths a year are attributed to infections caused by drug-resistant bacteria.

Northern European countries, where antibiotic use is lower than in the South, report lower prevalence of drug-resistant bacteria. The consultation paper points out that there is a culture over-prescription of antibiotics in Malta (Eurobarometer shows that 58% of Maltese who took antibiotics over the past year received their prescription without medical tests). Moreover, doctors often yield to patient demands and, even worse, prescribe broad-spectrum antibiotics.

According to a survey in 2015, the document states, only over a quarter of Maltese knew that antibiotics don't kill viruses, and antibiotic consumption rate was the highest in the EU.

As a result, as many as 8% of healthy individuals were found to carry multi-resistant staphylococus aureus -- one of the highest levels recorded in medicial literature. The government was not able to obtain reliable statistics on antibiotic use on farm animals. Some farmers buy antibiotics on the black market or from other countries and do not report them.

Details from the story:

  • According to Eurobarometer, 42% of Maltese took antibiotics from September 2017 to September 2018, 10% percentage points higher than the EU average, but now behind Italy, where 47% respondents took antibiotics.
  • This is a decrease from 48% since the previous year.
  • 39% still believe that antibiotics can cure colds, compared to the EU average of 28%. Alarmingly, 10% respondents in Malta have taken antibiotics hoping to cure their cold, and 12% took some against cough.
  • Moreover, 22% took them when they had  a sore throat, 14% for flu, and 13% for fever.
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