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Global Penicillin Shortage Reduces Rheumatic Fever Treatment Rates

Update Date: Sep 27, 2013 12:16 PM EDT

Penicillin is one of the most popular antibiotics that doctors use when treating bacterial infections, such as ear infections or strep throat. Even though this drug might be easily accessible in first world countries, a new report found that in other regions of the world, there is a penicillin shortage. According to this report, due to the global fight against HIV/AIDS, getting antiretroviral therapy for HIV/AIDS in certain parts of the world is easier than getting penicillin to treat for rheumatic fever.

The global team of rheumatologists revealed that over 15 million people in the world suffer from rheumatic fever with at least 233,000 deaths per year. Rheumatic fever is an inflammatory disease that can manifest after the body has been infected with group A Streptococcus bacteria. When left untreated, rheumatic fever can negatively affect the heart, joints, skin and brain. The scientists of the report stated that fewer than 20 percent of people who need penicillin to treat their rheumatic fever actually get them. On the other hand, 30 percent of the 35 million people infected with HIV receive medical treatment.

"Considerable effort goes into purchasing, procuring and supplying antiretroviral drugs for HIC," commented co-author Dr. Rosemary Wyber from the University of Western Australia reported by NPR.

Due to the focus on HIV/AIDS, clinics often do not have penicillin to treat people with rheumatic fever. If clinics do carry some treatment option, Wyber explained that they are usually of poor quality. The authors stressed that the penicillin shortage must be addressed. People who get rheumatic fever are more likely to get it again. In order to reduce their risk, giving them a slow-release antibiotic, such as benzathine penicillin, is highly effective.

"There's been a lot of penicillin made in unregulated drug labs around the world, and its purity has been in question," Kathryn Taubert of the World Heart Federation. "We need to get more manufacturers to make high-quality penicillin."

Based on the findings from a recent survey of 24 countries, researchers found that 40 percent of health care facilities reported having difficulty getting access to benzathine penicillin supplies. Around 10 percent reported the drug's quality was questionable. The importance of getting hands on this relatively cheap drug needs to be addressed.

The report was published in Global Health.

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