(CBS News) Elderly people in the South use more antibiotics than the rest of their peers in the U.S., leading researchers to believe that doctors in the region may be overprescribing the drugs.
About 21 percent of people 65 and older in the South used an antibiotic on average each quarter of the year, compared to 17 percent of people in the West and 19 percent of people in the Midwest. There was no discernible difference in disease prevalence in any of the regions.
"Patients and providers should know that there is this problem in the South and take some efforts to reduce antibiotic overuse," study author Dr. Yuting Zhang, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh, told HealthDay.
Researchers were able to determine the rates using Medicare data from January 1, 2007 though December 31, 2009. They also discovered that antibiotic use was highest during the first quarter of the year - January through March - at a rate of 20.9 percent of the population. It was lowest in the third quarter - July through September - with only 16.9 percent of people taking the antibiotics.
In addition, the South had the highest use of every type of antibiotic, especially "broad spectrum" antibiotics that are effective against a wide variety of bacteria. Zhang told Reuters this is especially worrisome because overuse can lead to antibiotic resistance.
"Once you get resistance to those broad spectrum antibiotics, next time you have anything where you really need that, it's not going to be as effective," Zhang said to Reuters.
The World Health Organization's director-general, Dr. Margaret Chan, spoke about the fear thatduring a conference in Copenhagen earlier this year. She mentioned that if rates continue as they do "things as common as strep throat or a child's scratched knee could once again kill" due to drug-resistant bacteria.
"We are losing our first-line antimicrobials. Replacement treatments are more costly, more toxic, need much longer durations of treatment, and may require treatment in intensive care units," she said.
The researchers concluded that areas that may be overusing antibiotics should take a closer look at what they are prescribing medication for.
"Areas with high rates of antibiotic use may benefit from targeted programs to reduce unnecessary prescription," the authors wrote. "Quality improvement programs can set attainable targets using the low-prescribing areas as a reference, particularly targeting older adults."
The study was published online during September 2012 in the Archives of Internal Medicine.