GP surgeries try out new blood test to stem rising use of antibiotics in Northern Ireland
A simple blood test to ascertain when a patient needs an antibiotic is being trialled at a number of GP practices in Northern Ireland.
The pilot scheme has been launched as part of efforts to slash the number of antibiotics handed out here - with recent figures revealing 1.9m prescriptions are written annually in Northern Ireland.
It comes as health bosses warn of the growing threat to mankind resulting from the misuse of the drugs.
Northern Ireland's top doctor, Dr Michael McBride, has welcomed the scheme and said it is imperative that steps are taken now to put an end to the overuse of antibiotics.
Five GP surgeries, one in each health trust, are now offering the blood test which helps to establish whether a patient has a viral or bacterial infection by measuring inflammation in the body.
C-reactive protein (CRP) tests are already routinely used in hospitals but are not normally carried out in GP surgeries.
However, with the introduction of the simple test, a GP can now establish within minutes the likelihood that a patient has a bacterial infection.
The test is also proving useful to GPs when explaining to a patient why they will not prescribe an antibiotic.
Dr Brenda Bradley, from the Health & Social Care Board, said: "Antibiotics do not work on viral infections, but it can be very difficult to detect whether a condition is viral or bacterial.
"The majority of infections are viral, they are self-limiting and they will clear up in a week or so by themselves.
"However, some patients with viral infections can seem very unwell, they can have a slightly raised temperature and feel quite poorly, but when a CRP test is carried out it can provide reassurance they don't need an antibiotic.
"It's a quick and painless finger prick test and the results come back in three or four minutes.
"The sample is analysed by a machine, which gives a reading of the level of CRP in the blood.
"If it is a low level, there is very little inflammation and the infection is more likely to be viral."
The test has been carried out on 50 patients at participating surgery Whitehouse Medical Group Practice since May.
Dr Gerry Meenan, who has worked at the Newtownabbey practice for 28 years, said he believes the test should be made available throughout Northern Ireland.
"Hopefully the other practices in the pilot will have a similar experience and we can demonstrate to our colleagues the benefit of using technology like this," he said.
It is hoped the pilot will result in the test being rolled out to practices around Northern Ireland.
The scheme is one of a number of initiatives under way in Northern Ireland to help address the overuse of antibiotics, which also includes delayed prescribing of the drugs.
Last month, Dr McBride -Northern Ireland's chief medical officer - branded misuse of antibiotics one of the "greatest threats to health".
He said minor infections or injuries such as cuts or scratches, and even cases of food poisoning, could prove fatal without action to address the situation.
Commenting on the ongoing pilot, he said: "In Northern Ireland, we use significantly more antibiotics than anywhere else in the UK.
"We know that overuse of antibiotics leads to antibiotic resistance and an increase in drug-resistant infections such as clostridium difficile.
"When it is not clear whether a patient has a viral infection or a bacterial infection, often the GP often has to err on the side of caution and prescribe an antibiotic, in case the infection is bacterial.
"Point-of-care testing allows GPs to be more confident in deciding whether to prescribe an antibiotic.
"I welcome this pilot and look forward to its findings."
The World Health Organisation has described the growing resistance to antibiotics as one of the biggest threats to global health, food security and development.
It says resistance occurs naturally, but misuse of the drugs is accelerating the process.