- Would you like to improve your health?
Save money? And do something important for the environment at the same
time? Dr. Bernadette Albanese, a pediatrician from Johns Hopkins University,
has a suggestion for you.
- She wants everyone to avoid overusing
antibiotics. While it's true that antibiotics can fight bacterial infections,
they are 100 percent ineffective against viruses. "It's a medical
fact," she emphasizes, "that they do no more good against viruses
than a sugar pill."
- She goes on to say that it's viruses
that cause all colds, most sore throats and most coughs. "The body's
immune system takes care of them," she says, adding, "In most
cases, all you have to do is wait a few days for the infection to run its
- But what if it's your child and you really
want to do everything you can for him or her. It wouldn't hurt, would it,
to give some antibiotics anyway, just in case? Until recently, most people,
including physicians, would have answered that there would be no harm done,
even if no good was done, either. Today a different picture is emerging.
Overprescription of antibiotics means that the rate of drug-resistant bacteria
is increasing dramatically.
- "Because we've used antibiotics
so liberally," she says, "the bacteria have developed ways of
resisting their effects. Unfortunately, the resistant bacteria are still
available to cause infection."
- One example of this is the bacteria pneumococcus.
It's the usual cause of ear infections, pneumonia and meningitis. "In
the past," says Albanese, "we could treat this bacteria with
penicillin." Snapping her fingers, she says, "It was no big deal.
But," she continues, "today 23 percent of them are resistant
- The pneumococcus bacteria now shows resistance
to our second and third lines of antibiotic defenses. Some have developed
resistance to virtually all the available antibiotics except one -- and
it can only be administered intravenously in hospitals.
- "If this continues," says Albanese,
"we may have to send children to the hospital each time they have
an ear infection rather than treating them at home with oral medications."
- That's one example of what happens when
our arsenal of antibiotics becomes compromised. The danger, however, isn't
just to society. It's also to the individual. "When you overuse antibiotics,"
she says, "you increase the risk of developing an infection yourself
due to a resistant bacteria."
- When you use an antibiotic unnecessarily,
you are almost certainly creating antibiotic-resistant bacteria in your
own system. "If I culture your throat right now," she begins
her explanation, "I could probably find pneumococcus bacteria and
other bacteria as well. This is normal. We all have them. But if I keep
giving you antibiotics, the only bacteria that survive are resistant ones."
- Albanese says that it's common to develop
an infection from your own bacteria, which is what happens with ear infections
or even meningitis. "When you overuse antibiotics," she warns,
"you increase the risk that your infection will be caused by a resistant
bacteria, and it may be harder to treat or even untreatable."
- Albanese worries about the enormous number
of unnecessarily prescribed antibiotics. The average child will get between
two and nine colds per year and, on average, doctors will prescribe antibiotics
in half these cases. That means 18 million unnecessary prescriptions each
- Doctors throughout the country are being
urged not to overprescribe antibiotics. Albanese hopes that you'll be part
of the solution and understand that antibiotics are inappropriate for a
cold or any other viral infection.