Tag Archives: Get Smart About Antibiotics Week

Antibacterial soap

Ever wonder why soap companies label their products “antibacterial” instead of “antibiotic”?  OK, probably not.  But this is not just trivia, folks — the explanation can help us address the rather pressing problem of drug-resistant strains of bacteria. So if this post is too boring now, at least consider returning when you are dying in a hospital bed from an untreatable bacterial infection.  It will seem more important then.

colin purrington photography: Blog photos &emdash; antibacterial-soap

So the answer is that I think soap manufacturers have figured out that using “antibacterial” is much clearer than using “antibiotic” — consumers have zero expectation that antibacterial soaps kill fungi, viruses, or protozoans.  That’s because to most people antibiotics have a broad range of action (Google definition; Wikipedia entry).  So soap companies avoid this confusion by specifying “antibacterial,” and their usage has clearly caught on.  As proof, please see the graph below to see how people search for information about such soaps online.  The blue line, which shows the number of people searching Google for “antibacterial soap” is vastly higher than the red line, which shows “antibiotic soap” searches.

Antibiotic soaps on Google Trends

I make the above points not to highlight how great soap companies are, but rather to show pharmaceutical companies, physicians, and health organizations that if they’d adopt “antibacterial” as way to describe antibacterial drugs, the public would fall in line. Currently all these groups love using the word “antibiotic,” and when I’ve suggested to them that they should switch, they respond politely, “You have wasted our valuable time with this crackpot suggestion” (I’m paraphrasing).  They firmly believe the word “antibiotic” is not causing the public confusion.  I think they haven’t really thought about how misnomers work on the brain — they truly do influence people’s perceptions. I also believe that they haven’t searched Google for the definition of “antibiotic”, and that they haven’t looked at the Wikipedia entry (links above).  I fully admit that word “antibiotic” doesn’t confuse microbiologists or physicians, but those people make up a rather small proportion of the world’s population.  The remaining people are justifiably confused about the specificity of “antibiotics,” and that’s why they tend to demand antibacterials from their doctors for viral infections. For example, many people use Google to research specificity of antibiotics; they never search for specificity of antibacterial (see graph in a new window). Getting rid of “antibiotics” should be a no-brainer for anyone concerned with the over-prescription of antibacterials.

So I’m looking for just one medical association, one non-profit, or one pharmaceutical company brave enough to abandon “antibiotic”.  It would be good press, and it would help fight the evolution of drug-resistant bacteria.

Please see, “Curbing the misuse of antibiotics” for further information if you are concerned with evolution of antibacterial-resistant strains of bacteria. My theme, again, is that simply deleting “antibiotic” is an insanely easy thing we could all do.

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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 getsmart@cdc.gov.  And if by chance Dr Tom Frieden (CDC Director) follows your tweets, he’s @DrFriedenCDC.

In related news, please also see “Curbing the misuse of antibiotics“.

And have a great Antibiotic Awareness Week!

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