Online market in antibiotics fuels rise of superbugs

Online pharmacists are illegally selling antibiotics without prescriptions, fuelling the rise of untreatable superbugs, a study has found.

Almost half of the most accessible websites sell powerful drugs direct to patients, and regulators can do little against sellers based overseas.

Patients have been warned that they risk serious side-effects as well as global health in buying antibiotics online.

Overuse of antibiotics is one of the most serious threats to world health because it helps infections develop resistance to the drugs, hastening the day when crucial medicines stop working. Professor Dame Sally Davies, the chief medical officer for England, has warned that this would be an “apocalyptic” threat and would make much of modern medicine impossible.

In an attempt to discover how easy the drugs were to buy, researchers at Imperial College London googled “buy antibiotics online” and analysed the top 20 results.

Five were pharmacies based in the UK that required patients to have a prescription, they report in the Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy.

But the rest were less strict, with nine out of twenty allowing patients to buy antibiotics without a prescription, picking their own medicines and dosages.

Sara Boyd, lead author of the study, said that this was a “real concern” for safety. “There’s a risk of infection not being treated properly, if it isn’t an infection another illness is not being diagnosed, there may be interference with another drug, people might have an allergy, there is a whole range of potential risks,” she said.

Even though British pharmacists were acting legally in allowing online prescriptions, Dr Boyd questioned whether such vital drugs should be available without seeing a doctor. “We would suggest that remote prescribing of antibiotics should reflect the standards of face-to-face consultations to ensure patient safety,” she said.

Laura Piddock, director of Antibiotic Action, said: “Antibiotics should always be prescribed by a healthcare professional as they will choose whether such as drug is needed and which drug. The choice of drug is dependent upon the type of patient, their symptoms and history. So using an antibiotic without expert knowledge means that people could be unnecessarily exposing themselves to a drug with potential side- effects.”

A spokesman for the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency said: “Medicines purchased outside the regulated supply chain or from illegitimate sources may be untested. That means there’s no way of knowing what’s in them or what they might do to your health.”

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