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Antibiotics Without A Prescription Still Common In Tijuana

Above: Sue Eriksen buys antibiotics without a prescription in Mexico. She's prone to bronchitis during the winter and doesn't have health insurance.

Aired 2/1/13 on KPBS News.

Only about 5 percent of the respiratory illnesses presented at area clinics are bacterial, but San Diego's proximity to the border means many patients are taking antibiotics anyway.

Special Feature Speak City Heights

Speak City Heights is a media collaborative aimed at amplifying the voices of residents in one of San Diego’s most diverse neighborhoods. (Read more)

Mexican pharmacies cater to U.S. patients who travel south for cheaper - and sometimes self-prescribed - medication.

Only about 5 percent of the respiratory illnesses presented at area doctors’ offices are bacterial, according to Dr. Javier Rodriguez, the medical director for La Maestra Community Health Centers.

But San Diego’s proximity to the border means many patients are taking antibiotics anyway.

Though Mexico passed a law in 2010 requiring patients to have a prescription from a Mexican doctor for antibiotics, the law isn't always enforced.

Sue Eriksen, a City Heights resident, said she went to Tijuana in November to stock up on antibiotics for the winter. She’s prone to bronchitis and doesn’t have health insurance. If she crosses the border to buy the medication, she can skip paying a fee to have a local doctor write the prescription and pick up the drugs for less. A bottle of 48 Amoxicillin capsules cost her $15.

“You walk into a pharmacy, you ask if they have it, you ask them how much it is and you buy it,” she said. “It’s a very simple process.”

Eriksen said that with the Mexican pharmacist she sees, there’s little-to-no conversation about dosage. She said she’s careful to take the antibiotics as a U.S. doctor told her to years back.

But Dr. Rodriguez said San Diegans need to be careful when they get antibiotics across the border.

“One, the patient and the patient’s family don’t know if they’re allergic,” Rodriguez said. “Two, they don’t know how to dose them, as many of these antibiotics require special weight dosing; and three, it’s just setting up a lot of antibiotic resistance.”

Rodriguez also noted not all ailments call for the same kind of antibiotics. A doctor can better tailor the treatment.

Rodriguez said self-prescribed antibiotics are common among his patients – at least one or two a day. La Maestra serves predominantly Latino communities, where parents are more likely to have misconceptions about antibiotics.

“They often get them from Mexico, or even here, sometimes I’ve heard the families talking about the swap meets,” Rodriguez said.

I found Eriksen on an online forum where people share advice on buying antibiotics in Mexico.

I should note that she didn’t break any laws getting the antibiotics. Mexican law puts the onus on the pharmacists selling them, and Eriksen crossed back into the United States with no questions asked.

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