Malta still registers highest use of antibiotics in EU, survey shows

Over the past year, 42% of Maltese used antibiotics, the same percentage as in 2018, despite greater knowledge on the ineffectiveness of antibiotics in treating colds and other viruses

Antibiotics are ineffective against colds and viruses
Antibiotics are ineffective against colds and viruses

Malta registers the highest proportion of respondents in the EU, who reported taking antibiotics in the previous 12 months, a Eurobarometer survey reveals.  

The proportion of respondents who took antibiotics is the highest in Malta (42%) and the lowest in Sweden and Germany (both 15%), Poland (16%) and the Netherlands and Denmark (both 18%).

But in an indication that health information campaigns on anti-microbial resistance are making some headway, the survey shows a 15-percentage point (pp) increase in the proportion of Maltese who correctly replied that antibiotics are ineffective against colds, and an 18-pp increase in the proportion who believe antibiotics are ineffective against a virus.

Since 2018, the proportion of respondents who say they have taken antibiotics in the last year has decreased in all but two member states, namely Malta where the percentage who took antibiotics has remained the same and Luxembourg, which reported a two-point increase.

The vast majority (90%) of Maltese respondents said that they were prescribed antibiotics by their doctor.

A national analysis reveals that across all member states less than half of the respondents say that they took antibiotics. In only three member states, a third or more respondents say that they took antibiotics: Malta (42%), Luxembourg (36%), and Bulgaria (33%).  

The largest decrease in the use of antibiotics occurred in Italy (-20pp), Ireland (-16pp) and Portugal (-13pp). 

Treating a sore throat is the most common reason given by Maltese respondents for using antibiotics. Antibiotic use to treat a sore throat is most mentioned in Hungary (29%), Malta (25%), Ireland (19%), and Slovenia (16%).

It is least likely to be a reason given in Cyprus (4%), the Netherlands and Germany (both 5%), and Finland (6%).

16% of Maltese have also used antibiotics to treat a cold compared to just 11% of all respondents in the EU.

Moreover, the Maltese are the most likely in Europe to have taken antibiotics to treat a headache. Respondents in Malta (15%), Slovenia (14%) and Belgium (13%) were the most likely to use antibiotics to treat a headache.

Across Europe the most common reason for taking an antibiotic was treating a urinary tract infection. This was the most common reason given by respondents in Italy and Sweden (25% both), Denmark (23%) and Belgium (19%). Respondents were the least likely to mention urinary tract infection in Cyprus and Lithuania (both 6%), Slovakia, Hungary, and Bulgaria (8% all), and Malta (9%).

On a positive note, in 18 member states, the proportion of respondents who are aware that antibiotics are ineffective against colds increased, with the largest increases seen in Portugal (+18pp) and Malta (+15pp).

Still, 34% of Maltese respondents still believe that taking antibiotics is effective against colds while 46% believe that antibiotics can kill a virus.

And in all but one member state, the majority of respondents say they now plan to consult a doctor if they think they need antibiotics, with the highest proportions found in Malta (81%), Denmark (79%), and the Netherlands (77%).

Although published today the survey was held between 21 February and 21 March 2022.

Health Minister Chris Fearne has recently been appointed vice-chairman of the Global Leaders Group (GLG) on antimicrobial resistance.

The GLG on antimicrobial resistance brings together world leaders and experts with the aim of taking political action on antimicrobial resistance. The group includes leaders from major international organisations, including the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, the World Organisation for Animal Health, the WHO and the UN Environment Programme.

Why is incorrect use of antibiotics bad?

The incorrect use of antibiotics contributes to the ability of micro-organisms (such as bacteria) to become increasingly resistant to antibiotics to which they were previously susceptible. This happens when germs like bacteria and fungi defeat the drugs designed to kill them.

This anti-microbial resistance is increasingly viewed as a threat to public health in Europe and other parts of the world. One of the main drivers of AMR is the wrong use of antibiotics – such as for treating viruses or when not taken for the full course of treatment. Thus, a medical prescription based on a test to prove bacterial infection should always be the norm to minimise wrong use and help preserve the efficacy of antibiotics for generations to come.