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Antibiotics available without prescription from almost half of online pharmacies

Survey finds 45% of online pharmacy available to UK consumers willing to supply antibiotics illegally

Ingrid Torjesen

Friday, 17 February 2017

Antibiotics are available illegally without a prescription through 45% of online pharmacy websites available to UK, a small study* published in the Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy has found.

For the study, researchers at Imperial College London analysed the practices of 20 online pharmacies accessible to UK citizens. The pharmacies analysed were selected by entering the search term “buy antibiotics online” into Google and Yahoo and picking the 10 pharmacy outlets at the top of the results for each search engines. The team then checked the online pharmacies websites thoroughly to assess whether they were appropriately registered and how the antibiotics were being sold.

All online medicine vendors selling to UK consumers must by law register with both the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) and the General Pharmaceutical Council (or the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland). However, just five (25%) of the 20 online pharmacy websites displayed evidence of registration with both the MHRA and the GPhC; all were online versions of UK high street pharmacies and required a prescription before an antibiotic would be delivered.

Overall, nine (45%) online pharmacies did not require a prescription prior to purchase, and six (30%) did not issue online prescriptions and instead required that a prescription be faxed or posted before an antibiotic would be delivered.

Sixteen of the pharmacy websites let customers have a choice over the type, dosage, and duration of antibiotic treatments. Only four, all GB based, used a prescriber-driven pathway. The other GB-based pharmacy permitted a consumer-driven process prior to the point of payment, then required a health questionnaire to be completed and assessed by a doctor.

Only 30% of websites asked consumers to complete a health questionnaire prior to purchase, and only 70% provided information on the safe usage of prescription medications, including potential side effects or adverse reactions when combined with other drugs.

Dr Sara Boyd, NIHR Academic Clinical Fellow in Infectious Diseases and Microbiology at Imperial and one of the researchers, said: “These findings are a real concern, and raise several important issues regarding antibiotic resistance and patient safety with online pharmacies.”

* Boyd SE, Prockter Moore LS, Gilchrist M, et al. Obtaining antibiotics online from within the UK: a cross-sectional study. J Antimicrob Chemother, February 2017. DOI: 10.1093/jac/dkx003

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