CDC study: Severe diarrheal illness in children linked to prescribed antibiotics

NEW YORK — The majority of pediatric bacterial infections that cause severe diarrhea and are potentially life-threatening occur among children who recently took antibiotics prescribed by doctors for other conditions, according to a new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published this week in Pediatrics.

The study showed that 71% of the cases of Clostridium difficile infection identified among children ages 1 year through 17 years were community-associated — that is, not associated with an overnight stay in a healthcare facility. By contrast, two-thirds of C. difficile infections in adults are associated with hospital stays.  

Among the community-associated pediatric cases whose parents were interviewed, 73% were prescribed antibiotics during the 12 weeks prior to their illness, usually in an outpatient setting, such as a doctor’s office. Most of the children who received antibiotics were being treated for ear, sinus or upper respiratory infections. Previous studies show that at least 50% of antibiotics prescribed in doctor’s offices for children are for respiratory infections, most of which do not require antibiotics.

“Improved antibiotic prescribing is critical to protect the health of our nation’s children,” stated CDC director Tom Frieden. “When antibiotics are prescribed incorrectly, our children are needlessly put at risk for health problems, including C. difficile infection and dangerous antibiotic resistant infections.”

The fiscal year 2015 President’s Budget requests funding for CDC to improve outpatient antibiotic prescribing practices and protect patients from infections, such as those caused by C. difficile. The CDC initiative aims to reduce outpatient prescribing by up to 20% and healthcare-associated C. difficile infections by 50% in five years. A 50% reduction in healthcare-associated C. difficile infections could save 20,000 lives, prevent 150,000 hospitalizations and cut more than $2 billion in healthcare costs.

C. difficile, which causes at least 250,000 infections in hospitalized patients and 14,000 deaths every year among children and adults, remains at all-time high levels. According to preliminary CDC data, an estimated 17,000 children ages 1 year through 17 years get C. difficile infections every year. The Pediatrics study found that there was no difference in the incidence of C. difficile infection among boys and girls, and that the highest numbers were seen in white children and those between the ages of 12 months and 23 months.

Taking antibiotics is the most important risk factor for developing C. difficile infections for both adults and children. When a person takes antibiotics, beneficial bacteria that protect against infection can be altered or even eliminated for several weeks to months. During this time, patients can get sick from C. difficile picked up from contaminated surfaces or spread from a healthcare provider’s hands.

Although there have been significant improvements in antibiotic prescribing for certain acute respiratory infections in children, further improvement is needed. In addition, it is critical that parents avoid asking doctors to prescribe antibiotics for their children and that doctors follow prescribing guidelines, the CDC stated.

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