Rapid test for flu helps cut antibiotic use

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A quick-acting test for flu and other viral infections could help fight the rise in antibiotic resistant ‘superbugs’ and ensure patients with respiratory conditions get the right treatment faster.

New research, led by Dr Tristan Clark from the NIHR Biomedical Research Centre, has shown a quick-acting test for respiratory viruses like flu could improve care for patients.

Patients with asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) who had the test received the right treatment faster, with shorter courses of antibiotics and shorter stays in hospital.

Personalised treatment

The study results, published in Lancet Respiratory Medicine, are an early example of personalised medicine – where the treatment is tailored to cater for each individual patient.       

The test, known as a point-of-care test, avoids the need for samples to be sent off to a laboratory, allowing patients to get a diagnosis within an hour rather than a couple of days.

Overall, the study involved 720 patients with acute respiratory illness, including pneumonia and exacerbation of asthma and COPD at University Hospital Southampton’s emergency department and acute medical department during the winter months of 2015 and 2016.

Half the patients had the point-of-care test, in which case a swab was analysed on the device and the results given to their doctor, while the other half received standard care. 

Patients who had the point-of-care test got the right treatment for their condition faster. Patients who tested positive for flu in the point-of-care testing group were appropriately isolated in a side room and given antiviral medication more often and sooner than those in the standard care group.

“My vision is that anyone who comes in with an acute respiratory condition would receive a point-of-care test as routine, as they came through the hospital door,” explains Tristan. “That would tell us immediately what they had, so for example if they had flu, they could be isolated in a side room and given antiviral drugs.”

Fighting antibiotic resistance

Overuse of antibiotics is fuelling a rise in ‘superbugs’ – resistant strains of bacteria that can’t be treated with antibiotics – a threat which could take medicine back to a time when bacterial infections were untreatable and deadly.

Lung infections in asthma and COPD patients are a common cause of antibiotic overuse, as infections can be very serious in these patients and cause their symptoms to get much worse.

Antibiotics are only effective at treating bacterial infections, and cannot be used to treat infections caused by a virus, like a cold or flu. Yet they are often given to patients when the cause of the infection is not immediately apparent.

Armed with the results from this point-of-care test, doctors were reassured that that it was safe to give patients shorter courses of antibiotics.

If it became incorporated into standard practice, this test could therefore be a useful tool in the fight to prevent this rise in antibiotic resistant infections.

Posted on Tuesday 25 April 2017