A study conducted in 26 European countries has found that resistance to antibiotics is more prevalent in countries where they are prescribed more often. Experts say resistance to antibiotics makes bacterial infections harder to treat.

Antibiotic resistance is a serious public health problem, occurring when otherwise treatable bacterial infections no longer respond readily to the drugs.  Researchers at the University of Antwerp in Belgium, concerned about the potential scope of resistance, found that it was higher in countries where the drugs were prescribed more freely.

The researchers studied antibiotic use in 26 European countries between 1997 and 2002.

They found that in countries where antibiotic use was highest, the drugs were less effective in treating a number of illnesses, including those caused by bacteria responsible for pneumonia, throat and urinary tract infections.

The researchers found France and Belgium topped the list of countries with high antibiotic use, while doctors in Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands were less likely to treat their patients with antibiotics for similar symptoms.

Herman Goossens, the study's lead author, says resistance to antibiotics can result from prescribing the drugs inappropriately, such as for viral infections. He says that can have serious health consequences for people infected with a bacteria that no longer responds to antibiotics.

"People don't die of infections because they are treated with antibiotics," he said.  "So, that means, the high-consuming countries clearly prescribe antibiotics for so-called viral infections.  So, there's a lot of inappropriate use of antibiotics.  And I think we should take an example [from] those countries who are doing much better, and who have it more under control, and who have much less problems with resistance."

Professor Goossens notes antibiotic resistance is a serious problem worldwide.  He says researchers have been meeting with officials of the World Health Organization over the last couple of months to discuss what can be done.

"And we're hoping that the methodology we've developed will also be applied and will inspire other countries," he added.

The study on antibiotic resistance in Europe was published this week in the latest issue of the international medical journal, The Lancet.