Half of Tamiflu prescriptions went unused during 2009 swine flu pandemic

According to findings of sewage water study

Around 50% of the Tamiflu prescriptions issued during the influenza pandemic in 2009–10 went unused in England, a study by the UK’s Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) has found.

The unused medication represents approximately 600,000 courses of Tamiflu at a cost of around £7.8m to the UK taxpayer.

The finding, published online in the open access scientific journal Plos One, comes from the first study of its kind to use sewage water to estimate drug compliance rates. The study estimated usage of pharmaceuticals from large populations by sampling sewage and recovering the active component of Tamiflu, thus measuring drugs that were actually consumed by patients, rather than those that were flushed away without being swallowed.

Scientists at the CEH led the study working with colleagues at Uppsala, Linnaeus and Umeå Universities in Sweden, and the University of South Bohemia in Czech Republic.

‘Influenza pandemics are rare, making a study such as this a unique and important window into how people behave during a public health emergency such as a pandemic,’ said lead author Dr Andrew Singer, a Chemical Ecologist from the CEH.

‘This study sheds new light on people’s willingness to follow medical advice on antiviral usage. Importantly, this method could be used to monitor how many people take certain kinds of medicine in real time and alert national health authorities to the need for stronger public information campaigns during pandemic emergencies.’

Influenza pandemics are rare, making a study such as this a unique and important window into how people behave during a public health emergency

The research highlighted that despite the central role of antivirals in many nations’ influenza pandemic preparedness plans, there remains considerable uncertainty regarding antiviral compliance rates. Poor compliance drains resources by diverting limited antiviral stocks from those who may need it most. Misused antivirals can lead to antiviral resistance, which represents a significant financial cost and health risk. Previous research on antiviral compliance had focused on small populations, typically fewer than 200, and used survey-based analyses of drug compliance, which can be unreliable.

Our study was the first compliance study to utilise waste water as an evidence base for whether a population consumed Tamiflu or not

Dr Singer added: ‘Our study was the first compliance study to utilise waste water as an evidence base for whether a population consumed Tamiflu or not. Because of this unique study design, we were able to examine populations in order of magnitude larger than previous studies. One population was just over 6,000 people and the second population was 208,000. Tamiflu gets transformed into the active antiviral only after being consumed, and is released into the sewage with every visit to the toilet. This waste water epidemiology approach is particularly robust for drugs such as Tamiflu and potentially more reliable than some survey based methods of assessing compliance.’

Predictions of oseltamivir consumption from Tamiflu recovered in sewage were compared with two sources of national government statistics to derive compliance rates. Scenario and sensitivity analysis indicated an estimated compliance rate of between 45–60%.

‘With approximately half the collected antivirals going unused, there is a clear need to improve public health messages so that less antiviral is wasted and that the duration and severity of infection is reduced,’ added Singer.

‘Furthermore, we feel the waste water epidemiology approach undertaken can potentially help shape future public health messages, making them more timely, targeted, and population sensitive, while potentially leading to fewer misused and unused antivirals, less wastage and ultimately a more robust and efficacious pandemic preparedness strategy.’