Doctors have known for 45 years that there is a link between a widely-used antibiotic for minor eye irritations and bone marrow growth problems, but they still prescribe it on a daily basis.
The link between chloramphenicol, when given as an ointment, and bone marrow aplasia was first noted in 1950, and was reconfirmed in 1955, yet it is still the treatment of choice in Ireland and Britain.
About 55 per cent of all sufferers of "red eye" in Britain are still prescribed chloramphenicol.
In America, the drug receives several warnings in the drugs reference bible, the Physicians' Desk Reference and, as a result, is prescribed only in extreme cases when other antibiotics do not work. Sales fell by 80 per cent in just two years following the publication of a study there in 1982.
The same study also linked chloramphenicol, in tablet form, to aplastic anemia, when insufficient red blood cells are produced. The drug increases the risks 13 times.
This alarming situation was brought to light by Marie Doona and Bernard Walsh, two doctors at St James's Hospital in Dublin. Writing in the BMJ, they say: ". . .we find it difficult to justify subjecting patients to this potential risk-except when the ocular infection is resistant to all other available antibiotics."
They suggest two treatments, framycetin and fusidic acid, which are just as effective, but far safer (BMJ, May 13, 1995).