In much of the world antimicrobial drugs are sold without prescription or oversight by health-care professionals. The scale and effect of this practice is unknown. We systematically reviewed published works about non-prescription antimicrobials from 1970-2009, identifying 117 relevant articles. 35 community surveys from five continents showed that non-prescription use occurred worldwide and accounted for 19-100% of antimicrobial use outside of northern Europe and North America. Safety issues associated with non-prescription use included adverse drug reactions and masking of underlying infectious processes. Non-prescription use was common for non-bacterial disease, and antituberculosis drugs were available in many areas. Antimicrobial-resistant bacteria are common in communities with frequent non-prescription use. In a few settings, control efforts that included regulation decreased antimicrobial use and resistance. Non-prescription antimicrobial and antituberculosis use is common outside of North America and northern Europe and must be accounted for in public health efforts to reduce antimicrobial resistance.
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