Category Archives: Health

Antibiotic confusion in the Wall Street Journal

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know I have a thing against antibiotics. I love to take them when I have a bacterial infection, but I think it’s a terrible synonym for ‘antibacterial’, an older word that doesn’t mislead people into thinking the drug can work against viruses and other microorganisms. The problem with “antibiotic” is that people (as in “folks” who are not scientists, doctors, and science journalists) typically assume that they can treat non-bacterial infections, and this encourages people to demand antibiotics for anything that ails them. Part of this confusion is from the word itself (it sounds like it should work against all types of microorganisms). In addition to it sounding like it should be broad drug that can kill all things living, many dictionaries actually suggest exactly that, and that’s actually what the word used to mean. Unfortunately (and this seems to be the bigger problem), scientists, doctors, and science journalists don’t think “antibiotic” is at all confusing to lay people.

So last week I begged Ben Zimmer (Wall Street Journal) on Twitter to explore the origin of the word “antibiotic”, with the hope that people (folks and otherwise) would listen to him. Here’s his column: A Cure for ‘Antibiotic’ Confusion? It’s short and sweet, so just read it, but here’s my favorite sentence:

In current usage, “antibiotic” is roughly synonymous with “antibacterial,” though technically speaking antibiotics can act on microbes other than bacteria. [italics mine]

Two comments about the column.

First, I wish the article had explored just how common the confusion is. It’s not just that some people are confused. I think most people are confused. Again, I’m talking about “folks”, not the overeducated people who might be reading this nerdy blog post. But to be honest, some of the overeducated people I’ve talked to don’t understand antibiotic specificity, either. Because terrible word.

Second, Zimmer asked two people whether “antibacterial” could ever float as a substitute for “antibiotic”. They answered that it couldn’t because (essentially) the disinfectant lobby would object. That’s an odd reason because just as antibacterial wipes kill bacteriaantibacterial drugs kill bacteria. That’s because they both contain antibacterials, though the sources might differ. Zero conflict. Similarly, disinfectants and pills can contain antivirals. Or antifungals. And if there really was a conflict, I think the original use of antibacterial should trump the wipe lobby. Regardless, some scientists and physicians are already using “antibacterial” as synonym for antibiotic, so it’s not like there isn’t a precedent; it’s just too rare that they are doing so.

The issue is more that it’s hard for older people to avoid a word they have been happily using for their entire life. Good examples are “life preserver” (now “personal floatation device”) and suntan lotion (now “sunscreen” or “sunblock”), words that will probably only fully die when we do. But if properly motivated, people can make switches much faster. Two good examples are demonstrated by the employees of BackRub.com and Beaver College, now Google and Arcadia University, respectively. So I think a bunch of PhDs and MDs can summon the mental power to say “antibacterial” when speaking with impressionable patients or when designing outreach graphics. But they’ll only do so if some higher power (CDC, WHO) makes it clear that doing so might reduce overprescription of antibiotics. Even if using “antibacterial” would only reduce overprescription by 5%, the change would be worth doing.

I’m not suggesting that we stop using the word, “antibiotic”. The word is totally fine for conferences, publications, and situations where the context is clear or when there is plenty of time to clarify that they are antibacterials. The word is also invaluable when socializing with people from the powerful wipes lobby.

Thanks, Ben Zimmer!

Here are my previous posts on the topic, if you’re interested. If you conduct “science literacy” polls, you should read them. The reason is that asking something like, “Will antibiotics treat colds?” is a terrible question. You should be asking, “Do antibacterials kill viruses”. That will assess the science literacy more directly. Sticking with the old question just demonstrates that pollsters are unfamiliar with what “antibiotic” actually means.

You keep using the word antibiotic

Minor victory in my war against yam labeling fraud

In my futile quest to convince people that sweet potatoes shouldn’t be called yams (which are unrelated plants), I discovered that one can actually report vendors who label sweet potatoes as yams. So, for giggles, I reported Giant Foods to the USDA’s Misbranding and Misrepresentation Office. Below is a photograph I took in November of their organic sweet potatoes:

giant-sweet-potato-05 (1)

And now in all of their stores (that I’ve checked), they sell sweet potatoes labeled as sweet potatoes:

Nature's Promise sweet potato at Giant

It might be a small victory, but Giant Foods is giant, so I’m pleased. If you want to know more about my futile war, please see my page on Yams versus Sweet Potatoes. If you want to make your own report, just visit the above USDA site and send the contact person a photograph of the label along with store contact information. They’ll do the rest, and apparently in a persuasive way.

Teaching kids about sugar content of beverages

One out of three kids these days is overweight or obese, and consumption of sugary drinks is a big reason why. Sugary drinks also cause tooth decay (I know, big surprise there), and might even cause kids to be aggressive (or if kids think sugar has that effect, it might have a placebo effect). So I got to wondering what public schools could do … and I think that making a “sugar content” poster in kindergarten is is the way to go. The idea is to construct a display for the hallway or classroom wall that visually shows how much sugar is hidden in common beverages.

This project would fit in perfectly with most state standards (for example, see page 10 in Health Education Content Standards for California Public Schools). And because it includes numbers (of teaspoons), teachers can use the poster content to visually drive discussions about addition and subtraction. If this poster was done in a fun way, the experience might vaccinate kids against over-consumption of sugary drinks for the remainder of their lives. The parallel to brushing teeth might be appropriate: you teach kids how to do it before school … even though the chemistry of decay is beyond their understanding: if you don’t brush and floss, your breath will be nasty and you’ll lose your teeth. Like many health lessons, that’s best taught to young kids.

There are lots of ways to make the poster, but what I like about the one above is that water (no sugar) and plain milk (contains lactose … which is a sugar) are included. There should also be a sampling of common juices (apple, orange, e.g.) because they are loaded with sugar. And just for scale, it might be good to show how many teaspoons of sugar are in a typical bag of candy (e.g., Skittles).

Poster titles matter here, just like they do at a scientific meeting, in that they can provide a take-home message. “Rethink your drink” is a popular title (it rhymes), but I prefer something that confronts the point more directly. Here are some ideas: “Don’t drink dessert all day”, “Don’t drink your dessert”, or “Sugary drinks are candy drinks”. If snark is allowed in your district, then something like, “Sugary drinks are a sweet way to gain weight and rot teeth!” The idea is to be direct and memorable and to not shy away from the point: sugary drinks can (and do!) make kids fat.

If you want some background information relevant to lesson plans on sugar for K-3 levels, here are some resources from BrainPOP. If you’re looking for more examples of posters, here’s a Pinterest board where I collect them:

Pinterest board Educating kindergartners about sugary drinks on Pinterest.