Tag Archives: health

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.

Venn guide to pills that kill things

The Venn guide to pills that kill thingsEach year around this time, health care professionals begin to complain that patients are demanding antibiotics indiscriminately and are contributing to the evolution of resistant bacteria.  I’m officially sick of this complaint.  Doctors have created this problem by using the word “antibiotic” instead of the more descriptive words “antibacterial” and “antiviral.” Because the word “antibiotic” (= “against life”) seems to refer to something that kills all life, it’s rather understandable that patients want the pills for everything.

So I humbly propose that the graphic at right be posted in all doctors’ offices around the country, partly to be seen by patients but more importantly to rewire doctors’ vocabularies, which were probably fused in early medical school.  In talking with MDs about this issue, they think my proposal is stupid; they assume everyone knows that they mean “antibacterial,” and they insist the term has historically referred to bacteria only.  My response is (1) most patients don’t understand what doctors truly mean, and (2) doctors are wrong about the historical meaning of the word “antibiotic”… it was initially coined to describe compounds that kill all sorts of beasties, not just bacteria (see Science Friday’s blurb on origin of the word).

Please download a PDF of the graphic if you’re on board and want to help.  If you can laminate it, all the better…laminated documents look so official, plus the surfaces are easier to keep sterile.  Graphic is also great for public school classrooms if you’re teaching kids about the different kinds of antibiotics. And if you happen to write articles or texts about pills that kill things, I think this would make for a snazzy graphic, though MDs will have conniptions (there are pills for that, though, so they’ll be fine).

If you want more information on the problem, read blurbs by Dan Rather, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and The Alliance for Prudent Use of Antibiotics. It might take 30 years to effect the changes, but I think it’s worth trying.

Note: I realize that most pills kill other types of life to certain degree, so some of the pills in my graphic should be overlapping…like a true Venn diagram.  But it was too messy, so they are just simplified into subsets.  And I just love the similarity to “The Zen Guide to …”, and couldn’t resist.