Antibiotic usage decreasing… but not enough

CDC Get Smart poster healthy adult

I’m a little late on the uptake, but that’s what grad school does to me sometimes. The CDC’s weekly morbidity and mortality report from a few weeks ago contained some interesting findings regarding antibiotic prescribing habits among pediatricians in the US. Using data from the National Ambulatory Medical Care Service, the CDC found that patients age 14 or younger received fewer antibiotics from pediatricians’ offices from 2003-2004 than from 1993-1994.

My first thought: big whoop.

I know it’s progress, but a 24 percent decrease doesn’t set off confetti and balloons in my mind when it’s well established that antibiotics are overused, both in the animal industry and in the doctor’s office.

Since I spoke with experts on the subject of antimicrobial resistance last semester, I’ve been acutely aware of my own antibiotic use, as well as my friends, family and random strangers in the health center. While it’s easy to believe that one person’s misuse of an antibiotic won’t make a difference, I’ve learned better; every time we take an antibiotic we don’t need, we’re simply adding to the growing number of resistant bacteria out there. It’s amazing to think of the impact these bacteria have had on the running of hospitals, the way physicians are being trained to administer medicine, and the campaigns implemented by such entities as the CDC to combat antibiotic overuse. It’s become common for hospitals to have entire divisions specifically for infection prevention, since resistant bacteria have increased the number of hospital-acquired infections that are often difficult to treat.

The study also brought up another point, one that people often miss in the rush to blame doctors for over-prescribing. It showed that 58 percent of the antibiotics prescribed during visits to the pediatrician were for five acute respiratory infections (ARIs): pharyngitis, the common cold, otitis media, bronchitis and sinusitis. In most cases, these infections do not require antibiotics, but a large part of the problem is parents demanding an antibiotic for something as simple as a cold. People don’t like to go to the doctor, especially if their kid is sick, and not come out of it with some kind of drug to magically make everything better.

It’s an issue with several sides, but ending antibiotic overuse in the doctor’s office should be easier than it has been. The everyday person might not be able to change policies on antibiotics being fed to our cattle, but he can learn to take a doctor’s advice and skip the antibiotic for his kid with a runny nose. And doctors can learn to just say no to pushy parents, even if it results in a disgruntled client. The cost of antibiotic overuse is way bigger than one unhappy patient.

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