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Latest data show that use of antibiotics to treat ear infections is declining

The proportion of children who were given an antibiotic specifically to treat otitis media, a commonly diagnosed ear condition, declined from 14.4 percent in 1996 to 11.5 percent in 2001, according to new data from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. The data also show declines in both the percentage of children reported to have otitis media and the percentage of children whose parents sought treatment for the condition.

The data, from AHRQ's Medical Expenditure Panel Survey, suggest that campaigns launched in the mid-1990s to reduce the overuse of antibiotics and prevent antibiotic-resistant infection may have been effective. The campaigns, which were conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics and others, alerted parents and clinicians to the potential dangers of overuse of antibiotics and promoted appropriate use of these medications.

The majority of antibiotics prescribed for children in the United States are for respiratory tract infections; treatment for otitis media accounts for about one-third of all antibiotics purchased for children. Respiratory tract infections may be caused either by bacteria that can be treated effectively with antibiotics or by a virus for which antibiotics are not effective.

The data also show that between 1996 and 2001, the percentage of children in the United States aged 14 and under who used an antibiotic for any reason during a given year declined from 39 percent to 29 percent. In addition, the average number of antibiotic prescriptions used by all children aged 14 and under during this period declined from 0.9 per child to 0.5 per child.

MEPS researchers also looked at trends in antibiotic use for children of different ages, races and ethnicities, household income, insurance status, health status, and geographic location. The data show that during the period 1996-2001, each subgroup of children experienced a decline both in the percentage who used antibiotics and the average number of prescriptions for antibiotics.

MEPS collects information each year from a nationally representative sample of U.S. households about health care use, expenses, access, health status, and satisfaction with care. MEPS is a unique Government survey because of the degree of detail in the data and the ability to link MEPS data on health services spending and health insurance with demographic, employment, economic, health status, and other characteristics of individuals and families.

Details are in Trends in Children's Antibiotic Use: 1996 to 2001, MEPS Research Findings No. 23, which is available online at Print copies (AHRQ Publication No. 05-0020) are available from the AHRQ Publications Clearinghouse.

Editor's Note: Another recently published MEPS report summarizes differences in health status, sociodemographic characteristics, and clinical conditions among various U.S. population groups. The report, Demographic and Clinical Variations in Health Status, MEPS Methodology Report No. 15, is also available online at or are available from the AHRQ Publications Clearinghouse (AHRQ Publication No. 05-0022).

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