How to improve Antibiotic Awareness Week

In case you didn’t get the memo, the CDC’s Get Smart About Antibiotics Week (GSAAW) will be Nov 18th – 24th.  I know this is hugely unexciting to most of you, so you can stop reading now and I won’t be hurt. For others, thanks for visiting.

Get Smart About Antibiotics WeekPerhaps the most important goal of the GSAAW is to reduce the percentage of people who think antibiotics can treat viral infections.  In some surveys, more than half believe that’s the case, and those people are likely to demand antibacterials for their viral illnesses (that’s bad).  So the CDC produces websites, fact sheets, public service announcements, and even sends staffers into the wild to give talks.  Watch this TV spot (YouTube, in a new window) to get a quick taste of the effort.  The initiative spans more than just one week, and no doubt costs tens of millions of dollars each year. And we still have a HUGE problem with public misunderstanding about antibiotics, and a HUGE problem with the evolution of resistant strains.

I have a cheap suggestion for the CDC: replace “antibiotic” with “antibacterial” in all the relevant websites, PDFs, PSAs, and slideshows. Purging “antibiotic” gets rid of a word that actively misinforms patients because it sounds like it’s a wonder drug, capable of killing bacteria AND all other microorganisms, too (viruses, fungi, protozoans, etc). If you Google the definition (like a sick individual might do), you get this view confirmed:

Definition of antibiotic“Antibacterial,” on the other hand, is the perfect word to describe drugs that kill bacteria. And it’s been around with that same definition since 1890 (ish):

Definition of antibacterialIndeed, it’s probably because people know of the word “antibacterial” that makes them assume antibiotic means something else. After all, there is also a word for drugs that kill viruses (antivirals). I’ve tried to be persuasive above, but I realize that most people have an almost innate protectiveness about the word, “antibiotics.”  Most people view the word as vastly better than “antibacterial” and assume that the true problem is just about educating the public about what antibiotics cannot do.  They cling to “antibiotic” even though switching to “antibacterial” is the easiest way to make the public understand.  Ultimately, nobody wants to be the first to make the switch.  So we just need one (1) organization to take the plunge, to show others that the goal of reducing antibacterial abuse trumps people’s fondness for the useless misnomer that is antibiotics.

So if you have influence at the CDC, please ask them to at least explore this word swap. It really would be one of the cheapest improvements they could ever dream up.  Over the years I’ve tried to get them on board with this idea, but the brochures never seem to change.  For example, their 6 Fact Sheets have 192 instances of “antibiotics” (that’s 32 instances per page!), but zero instances of “antibacterial.”  In case there are individuals at the CDC who might actually like to try this swap, they could use some vocal support from people other than me. Especially if you’re important.  So if you can, please send emails to  In related news, please also see “Curbing the misuse of antibiotics“.

And have a great Antibiotic Awareness Week!

About Colin Purrington

PhD in evolutionary biology • twitterinstagram
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