Seasonal plea for informed antibiotic usage

The Centers for Disease Control recently announced that the 2012 flu season is gearing up to be heavy, so I wanted to make my yearly plug for greater clarity in antibiotics names.  Here’s why: according to a Pew study, approximately 36% of adults believe that antibiotics can help treat viral infections.  This percentage, the study contends, reflects a populace that is ignorant and fingers these people as contributors to the rise of antibacterial resistance (they ask their physicians for antibacterials when they have the flu), which is an enormous public health problem worldwide.

Graphic illustrating the types of antibioticsA painfully easy and cheap solution to the ignorance problem is for everyone to stop misusing the word, “antibiotic.”  When people hear the word “antibiotic,” they quite reasonably assume that it describes a drug that is effective against “biotic” thingies (that’s the technical term) and thus might treat viral infections, too.  Indeed, when “antibiotic” was first dreamed up as a word, it meant “anti-infective” (see details in last year’s plea).

Imagine, for example, if the CDC starting using “antibacterial” in all instances when it meant antibacterial.  Doing a search/replace on their website and PDFs could catalyze similar changes across the planet and could lead to a marked drop in the lay confusion about the efficacy of antibacterials on viruses.   Of course, the reply I usually get is, “but everyone knows that antibiotic means antibacterial, plus the medical community has been misusing it for years, and it would be a pain to change.” For all the billions of dollars that are spent on public awareness programs and development of new antibacterials worldwide, a virtually  cost-free switch to a more explicit naming scheme for anti-infectives should be a no brainer. Come on, folks, give it a try.

At the very least, if you poll people about the specificity of antibacterials, try asking, “Are antibacterials effective for treating viral infections?” I’d wager that the percentage saying, “yes” would be about 3%, not 36%.

If you’re on board, here’s printable version of this post’s graphic to print for your patient waiting room: antibiotic-wall-chart (PDF).  Patients who are gearing up to ask for antibacterials will be 90% less hostile when you say “no.” OK, I made up that 90%. You can also leave a stack 8 1/2 x 11″ versions on the counter along with a box of Crayons for the little ones.  Can’t start too soon in fighting ignorance.

About Colin Purrington

PhD in evolutionary biology • twitterinstagram

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