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Last Updated

22 Jan 2003

Source: Reuters, September 11, 2002.

Overuse of Anthrax Drug May Prove Deadly: Scientist

By Patricia Reaney

LEICESTER (Reuters) - Overuse of the drug that was widely taken during the US anthrax attacks last year could lead to more deaths from antibiotic-resistant infections than from the bacteria, a British scientist said on Wednesday.

More than 30,000 prescriptions for Bayer AG's Cipro were written last year after anthrax-tainted letters, which killed five people, were sent to US government officials and media outlets in three states in the weeks following the September 11 attacks.

Many more people self-prescribed the drug after obtaining it from the Internet or abroad, which increased the risk of drug resistance as well as complications from serious side effects.

"Here we have a situation where a very important broad-spectrum antibiotic is massively used and we have the risk that more people can develop drug-resistant complications, which could lead to death, than would have actually been killed in the anthrax attacks," Dr. Chris Willmott told a science conference.

The professor at Leicester University in central England cited research from scientists at Johns Hopkins University in the United States, who modeled the impact of 5,000 prescriptions of Cipro. The results suggested it would have prevented nine cases of anthrax.

"At the same time, about two people per hour in American hospitals are dying of complications of drug-resistant bacteria. That equates to around about 17,000 people a year," Willmott added.

Cipro, or ciprofloxacin, is an antibiotic that is used for a wide range of bacterial infections and life-threatening illnesses such as pneumonia, meningitis and septicaemia, which unlike anthrax can easily be transmitted to other people.

Willmott told the British Association for the Advancement of Science festival that overprescribing Cipro increases the threat of resistance and could make people vulnerable to other infections.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommends doxycycline, a member of a different class of antibiotics, instead of Cipro against anthrax.

"The frenzy whipped up regarding Cipro as the only cure for anthrax led to widespread and unnecessary self-prescription of ciprofloxacin," said Willmott.

"It remains to be seen if there is a significant increase in resistance-associated fatalities resulting from this unregulated misuse of a vital antibacterial drug," he added.

Last month, scientists at Rockefeller University in New York announced they may have found a new treatment that would make it impossible for anthrax to mutate into a resistant form.