With victims exposed to anthrax in Florida, more people seem to be asking doctors for antibiotics that fight the disease, but only in certain parts of the country.
Antibiotic demands appear to be highest in areas where recent terrorist events have occurred or are alleged. In Florida, where three people to date have tested positive for anthrax and one has died, physicians and pharmacies are deluged with requests for antibiotics.
In highest demand is Cipro, a powerful antibiotic used to treat anthrax.
"What we've seen just beginning this week is a very high spike in demand for Cipro in the Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale area," says a spokesperson from the Walgreen's Pharmacy chain media relations office.
In New York City, the response has been similar. Prescriptions for Cipro increased 27 percent in late September compared to sales from the same period one year ago, according to NDCHealth, a leading healthcare information services company.
Bayer AG, the company that produces Cipro, announced Wednesday that it would increase production of the drug by 25 percent in response to increased U.S. demand.
However, the kind of demand that has been seen in New York City and most strongly in Florida has not been reflected in other parts of the country, an indication that proximity to past events is a key factor. A survey of physicians in emergency rooms and private practices around the country finds that others have heard few requests.
"I probably have had about four or five requests for Cipro in the past couple of weeks," says Dr. Neil Brooks, a family physician in Vernon, Conn. "Most of the requests have been, 'Well do you think I should have this?'"
Armed With Antibiotics
Nevertheless, in areas closer to the attacks, people are seeing coverage of the anthrax cases in Florida and wonder if they should have or take antibiotics to protect themselves.
"People feel a little bit more secure in that they did something," says Paul Doering, professor of pharmacy at the University of Florida.
Generally, experts advise that people do not take antibiotics unless there is a good reason to do so.
"Taking an antibiotic is not benign," says Dr. Brian Strom, chair of biostatistics and epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. "The chance of getting an adverse or allergic reaction to an antibiotic is much higher than the risk of getting anthrax."
Concerns Over Self-Medication
For those who are unhappy with their physician's advice not to take the drug, other avenues have made themselves available.
"Protect yourself from anthrax here. We have the only drug approved for treatment of biological attacks," touts one Web site. All that is required is an 'online consultation form' that is evaluated by a physician.
Sites such as these, as well as increases in demand for antibiotics, are a serious concern for experts.
"We worry that if lots of people are taking it, that bacteria will eventually become resistant to it," says Brooks.
In addition, extended use of antibiotics can cause severe colitis that is difficult to treat.
"There are going to be a lot of people injured by taking Cipro," says Brooks. "There is potential for harm that I don't think the public understands."
Other physicians are concerned that stockpiles of drugs will deplete supplies for patients who are truly ill and need to take the drug.
In the end, this increased demand for antibiotics may just be the latest in a historical trend of panic that leads to stockpiling.
"Instead of stocking up on saltine crackers and purified water, people are stocking up on antibiotics," says Doering.