LONDON (Reuters) - Giving antibiotics to patients in intensive care units as a precaution saves lives, according to a major Dutch study published Wednesday.
The findings in the New England Journal of Medicine suggest the benefits of administering antibiotics right away, even before an infection develops, outweigh the risks people will develop resistance to them, the researchers said.
"We have seen that using antibiotics clearly results in a reduction in the number of deaths and intensive care units should make use of this knowledge," Anne Marie de Smet, a researcher at University Medical Center Utrecht, said in a statement.
Drug-resistant bacteria are a growing problem in hospitals worldwide, marked by the rise of superbugs such as methicillin-resistant Staphyloccus aureus, or MRSA. Such infections kill about 19,000 people a year in the United States, while more than 4,000 a year in Britain are infected.
The World Health Organization cites hospital-acquired infections as a major cause of death and disability worldwide and experts have been saying for year that poor hospital practices spread dangerous bacteria. At the same time, doctors are told to cut back on using antibiotics to prevent the rise of resistant "superbugs."
The infections can cause life-threatening and disfiguring infections that can kill within days and can often only be treated with expensive, intravenous antibiotics. The risk of infection increases the longer people remain in the hospital.
De Smet and colleagues looked at 6,000 men and women who stayed in intensive care units for at least two days at 13 hospitals in the Netherlands to compare the effects of different antibiotic treatments.
Volunteers who received oral antibiotics right away were 11 percent less likely to die, and those given oral and intravenous combinations right away were 13 percent less likely to die than people who did not get the drugs, the researchers found.
At the same time the number of antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections did not increase among the people on the drugs.
Because the researchers tracked deaths 28 days after treatment began, the next step is looking to see how resistance may develop in the long term.
Reporting by Michael Kahn; Editing by Maggie Fox and Giles Elgood