Antibiotic helps prevent childhood deaths, but raises concerns of drug resistance

Mass administration of the antibiotic azithromycin to children between the ages of 1 and 9 in Ethiopia significantly reduced deaths when compared with children that weren’t given the antibiotic, according to new research.

The drug was administered to help prevent trachoma, an eye infection that is a leading cause of preventable blindness, but researchers later found that the mortality rate among treated groups of children was half that of untreated groups. It’s unclear what caused the reduction, but the researchers speculated that the antibiotic provides a broad defense against assorted gastrointestinal and respiratory bugs that frequently kill children in low-resource settings.

While the findings are promising, some researchers have raised concern that broad use of azithromycin could hasten the development of resistance to the drug and diminish its efficacy.

Marc Lipsitch, professor of epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said in a June 6, 2019 NPR article that carefully monitoring for drug resistance is important, and that researchers should monitor both children and family members because it’s possible that children could pass along drug-resistant bugs. However, he added, the threat of drug resistance shouldn’t rule out use of the antibiotic if it’s reducing childhood deaths.

“I can’t think of anything better to do with antibiotics than to save lives, and there are very few cases where you can clearly see in a randomized trial that it’s saving lives,” Lipsitch said. “So the real question is whether the consequences for human health [of antibiotic resistance] are very severe, and if so are they severe enough to compete with the impressive benefit the treatment has.”

Read the NPR article: Could Antibiotics Be A Silver Bullet For Kids In Africa?