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Study finds 25% drop in drug prescribing for children during pandemic

Dispensing of prescription drugs to children declined sharply during the pandemic, according to a new study. File Photo by Tasique/Shutterstock
Dispensing of prescription drugs to children declined sharply during the pandemic, according to a new study. File Photo by Tasique/Shutterstock

July 20 (UPI) -- The number of medications prescribed for children dropped by more than 25% during the first eight months of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 compared with the same period in 2019, a study published Tuesday by the journal Pediatrics found.

The steepest declines were seen in antibiotics prescribed for infections, as well as for "cough-and-cold drugs," the researchers said.

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Antibiotic prescriptions for children and teens fell by nearly 56% between April and December of last year compared with the same period in 2019, the data showed.

Prescriptions for chronic diseases, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and asthma also fell, but those for depression remained unchanged.

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"The decline in the number of children receiving antibiotics is consistent with the large decreases in infection-related pediatric visits during 2020," study co-author Dr. Kao-Ping Chua said in a press release.

"Because antibiotics have important side effects, the dramatic decreases in antibiotic dispensing may be a welcome development. However, declines in dispensing of chronic disease drugs could be concerning," said Chua, a pediatrician and researcher at University of Michigan Health C.S. Mott Children's Hospital in Ann Arbor.

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In children, antibiotics are the leading cause of emergency room visits for adverse effects, with potential side effects that include allergic reactions, fungal infections and diarrhea, according to Chua.

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Long-term, overuse of these drugs also may contribute to antibiotic-resistant bacteria development, causing illnesses that were once easily treatable with to become untreatable and dangerous, he said.

Visits to doctors' offices and clinics fell sharply across all age groups in 2020, as people avoided healthcare facilities over fears of exposure to COVID-19, several studies have found.

As a result, for many people, treatment for chronic conditions such as asthma, as well as routine cancer screenings, was disrupted.

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For this study, Chua and his colleagues analyzed national prescription drug dispensing data from 92% of pharmacies across the country to assess changes among children age 19 and younger during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Between January 2018 and February 2020, nearly 25.8 million prescription drugs were dispensed to children monthly.

However, during the first eight months of the pandemic -- April through December 2020 -- prescription drug dispensing declined by about 27% compared with the same period in 2019.

Drugs typically prescribed for acute infections, including antibiotics, dropped by nearly 51%, while those for chronic diseases such as asthma and ADHD, fell by 17%. The number of prescription drugs dispensed for ADHD among children decreased by 11%.

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In addition, the number of prescription medicines used to treat symptoms of the common cold, particularly to suppress coughs, declined by nearly 80% during the 2020 study period.

This is significant, Chua said, given that they "have little benefit but are associated with potentially harmful side effects, particularly in young children."

"The decrease in antibiotic dispensing most likely reflects reductions in infections, such as colds and strep throat, due to COVID-19 risk-mitigation measures like social distancing and face masks," Chua said.

"As a result, children had fewer infection-related visits and had fewer opportunities to receive antibiotic prescriptions, whether for antibiotic-appropriate conditions or antibiotic-inappropriate conditions," he said.

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