In one of the first comprehensive studies of the use of antibiotics in Europe, scientists found their highest use in southern nations but also a growth in eastern countries.

   

"It is clear that in those countries where antibiotic use is very high ... resistance is much, much higher. In countries where there is very little use like Norway, Sweden and Denmark, there is hardly any resistance at all," said Professor Herman Goossens, of the University of Antwerp in Belgium, on Friday.

   

Antibiotic resistance is a growing problem because it can lead to the development of "superbugs" - bacteria that are not affected by even the most powerful drugs.

   

Overuse of antibiotics and a failure to realise how dynamic bacteria are have been blamed for the rise of superbugs.

 

Comparison

   

Goossens and his team compared antibiotic use in primary care with antibiotic resistance rates in 26 European countries from 1997 to 2002.

   

"There is an enormous jump of antibiotic use, particularly in the high-consuming countries, in the winter season which is normal because you have more infections"

Professor Herman Goossens,
University of Antwerp, Belgium

Prescriptions varied widely from a high in France, Greece and Luxemburg to a low in the Netherlands, Austria and Estonia.

   

Older antibiotics such as penicillin are still widely used in northern countries but newer, more expensive drugs are favoured in southern nations.

   

The scientists, who reported their findings in The Lancet medical journal, said differences in the use of the drugs is partly explained by the variation in seasons.

   

"There is an enormous jump of antibiotic use, particularly in the high-consuming countries, in the winter season which is normal because you have more infections," Goossens added.

   

Differences in culture and healthcare systems also played a role in the different drug usage.

   

The researchers said the data could provide a useful method to assess public health strategies to reduce antibiotic use and resistance levels.