Health Secretary Therese Coffey gave leftover prescription medicine to a sick friend – is it advisable or legal?


Therese Coffey, health secretary for England, has admitted giving her leftover antibiotics to friends and family who were not feeling well. This led the British Medical Association to release a statement describing his actions as “not only potentially dangerous, but also against the law”.

In the UK, medicines fall into three groups which determine how people can access them. Medicines on the “general sales list”, such as small packets of certain pain relievers or simple cough mixtures, can be purchased without a prescription in supermarkets and other stores.

“Pharmacy drugs”, such as tablets against motion sickness or stronger painkillers, are sold in pharmacies under the supervision of a pharmacist. And “prescription-only drugs,” such as antidepressants and antibiotics. These drugs can only be prescribed by a doctor or other health professional with the right to prescribe. Antibiotics are prescription-only medications.

The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) in the UK has previously said that anyone supplying a prescription medicine to someone for whom the medicine is not intended is breaking the law. However, the agency says a prosecution is highly unlikely.

In the UK, the Medicines Act 1968 governs the control of medicines, including their supply in commercial transactions or services. However, it does not include social sharing, which could explain the MHRA observation.

Social sharing, however, can sometimes lead to lawsuits. An even more potent type of prescription drug is a “controlled drug” named in drug abuse legislation. Controlled drugs are particularly addictive and harmful when misused or diverted for illicit purposes. For this reason, there are strict rules on how they are prescribed, provided, stored and even destroyed.

Some controlled drugs even require travelers to have a letter proving the drug was supplied to them, or a license from the Home Office when bringing them into the UK. Under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, it is an offense to unlawfully supply or be unlawfully in possession of a controlled drug.

Antibiotic resistance

But the drugs that Thérèse Coffey would have spoken of were antibiotics and not controlled drugs. Antibiotics are prescription drugs, and there are other concerns about sharing them.

Antibiotics work by killing bacteria or stopping them from spreading. The overuse and misuse of these drugs over the years has led to the creation of “superbugs,” which are strains of bacteria that are resistant to most common antibiotics.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has called antibiotic resistance one of the biggest threats to global health, food security and development. So, to prevent and control the spread of antibiotic resistance, WHO asks people to only use antibiotics when prescribed by a certified healthcare professional and never share or use leftover antibiotics. This contradicts the scenario attributed to Coffey and potentially explains the strength of BMA’s response.

In a recent letter to The Times, Professor Claire Anderson, President of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, wrote:

Patients should always complete their course of antibiotics and never share them with others as this is dangerous and can increase antibiotic resistance. Our members are promoting an “antibiotic amnesty” campaign to take unwanted antibiotics out of circulation, so if the Secretary of State does indeed have leftover medications, she is urged to drop them off at her local pharmacy, where they will be disposed of safely.

Misuse of antibiotics can lead to the creation of superbugs.
Graham Turner / Alamy Stock Photo

Other risks

Besides the risk of increased antibiotic resistance, prescription drugs are usually potent drugs that require close monitoring. This means that a suitably qualified person must ensure that they are the right medicines, given in the right dose for the person who intends to use them.

Shared medications may not be suitable due to a person’s existing medical condition (for example, being pregnant, breastfeeding, or having kidney or liver damage), risk of the medication causing side effects, allergic reaction or an addiction. Shared medications may also interact with the recipient’s other existing medications.

Side effects such as drowsiness become even more important when considering laws that make it an offense to drive after taking certain medications, especially if these were not prescribed to the driver.

During the current cost of living crisis, people may be tempted to save on prescription costs by sharing medications. But no one should share their prescription drug leftovers, as the potential harms are likely to far outweigh the immediate benefits.

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