By Richard P. Holm, MD
We take a lot of things for granted. With the advent of antibiotics in the 1930s and 40s, we saw a true change in longevity and a reduction in premature death from infectious diseases. Now we are seeing deaths from bacteria which are resistant to every antibiotic and it’s not just the sick and decrepit who are affected. Recent studies show many more people are dying in the US from antibiotic resistant bacteria than from AIDS. It’s a real crisis from too much of a good thing.
Resistance is due to excessive and overuse of antibiotics, which are often incorrectly seen as the cure for whatever ails us. The most glaring example is when antibiotics are given for what is obviously the common cold, making absolutely no difference in the course of the illness. Often I hear from the patient, “Why not start an antibiotic to keep this viral bronchitis from turning into pneumonia?” To that question I usually answer, “You are correct, when bacterial pneumonia occurs, it often follows a common cold, but studies show antibiotics don’t prevent that pneumonia following the cold. It just becomes a pneumonia resistant to treatment.”
So why are we overusing antibiotics? Certainly an effective sales effort by the pharmaceutical industry is part of it, but what’s most to blame is patient or parent expectation. One study showed that 65% of the time children get antibiotics if the doctor perceives the parents expect them, but only 12% of the time when antibiotics are not expected, even when the children are similarly ill. Ultimately the doctor is responsible but too often influenced to provide unnecessary treatment.
Another huge reason for growing antibiotic resistance results from their regular use in animal and poultry feed. Apparently this boosts growth and profits. Sometimes herds are even getting the newer broad spectrum antibiotics, which absolutely should be reserved for the care of sick individual animals, not the herd.
The good news is that in countries where efforts to use less antibiotics are successful, then, over just a few years, antibiotics become effective again.
So, there is something very important you can do. First, never push your doctor for an antibiotic. Make it clear you would be happy without the stuff unless it’s necessary.
Second, please push your grocery store or your restaurant for antibiotic-free meat. If we are willing to pay a little more for antibiotic-free products, farmers will provide.
Let’s not take antibiotics for granted. By avoiding the overuse of antibiotics, we can save ourselves from a real crisis.