Although I’m all on board with awareness, and its goal (reducing resistance evolution in bacteria), I think the people at the CDC are actively ignoring an insanely easy way to educate the public: simply stop using the word “antibiotic,” and instead say “antibacterial”. E.g., people at the CDC should open up all their Word documents and web pages and do a global search/replace. Would take a week to fix the formatting changes caused by the extra characters. The cost of doing this would probably be much less than what they spend getting all those cartoons for their posters on antibiotics.
The reason I suggest this is that most people assume antibiotics work against viruses. And who can blame them? It’s what the word use to mean. Below is a sample definition from 1910:
and here’s what a Google search displays:
Of course, the CDC loves the word “antibiotics.” And thus it would take an Executive Order to get them to do what I suggest. But if you agree with me and eventually become President, could you please consider sending them that memo?? You’d make me happy, and save a lot of lives.
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.
A 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.