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Half of Americans know antibiotic resistance is a health threat, but many still misuse the drugs

REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach
Not only are almost half of Americans unaware that antibiotic-resistance is a health threat, many people continue to harbor false beliefs about antibiotics — beliefs that are contributing to the crisis.

Almost three-quarters (71 percent) of Americans have heard about antibiotic resistance, and about half (53 percent) know it’s a major public health challenge, according to a survey published last Friday by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Those are among the positive findings from this survey. They suggest that efforts to raise the public’s awareness about antibiotic resistance — what has been called “the health crisis of our generation” and one of this year’s “top 10 threats to global health” — are working.

Yet the survey also reveals just how much more needs to be done to get individuals to change their behavior regarding the overuse and misuse of antibiotics. Not only are almost half (47 percent) of Americans unaware that antibiotic-resistance is a health threat, many people continue to harbor false beliefs about antibiotics — beliefs that are contributing to the crisis.

Most notably, 27 percent of the people surveyed stated — incorrectly — that antibiotics can cure viral infections such as the flu, and another 28 percent said they did not know enough to say one way or the other.

Also troubling is the finding that almost half (45 percent) of the people surveyed said they had personally not followed their doctor’s instructions regarding the taking of antibiotics.

Failure to complete the full course of prescribed antibiotics — even if you’re feeling better — is a major factor in antibiotic resistance. A shorter-than-prescribed treatment may not kill all the bacteria that an antibiotic is targeting, which means the remaining bacteria may subsequently develop a resistance to the drug.

Each year, at least 2 million Americans get an antibiotic-resistance infection, and at least 23,000 of them die as a result of those infections, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Assigning responsibility

The Kaiser survey, which polled a representative sample of 1,206 American adults age 18 and older from May 30 to June 4, also asked people to identify the groups they thought bear responsibility for the antibiotic-resistance problem. Significant majorities of the respondents said either drug companies (59 percent) or doctors and other health care providers (56 percent) were “very responsible.” Smaller numbers of people said the same about the federal government (38 percent) or the agriculture and farming industry (20 percent).

Only 30 percent of the respondents said patients were “very responsible” for the growing problem of antibiotic resistance.

Yet many of them had personal knowledge of individuals misusing antibiotics. One in four (24 percent) of the respondents reported that a doctor or other health care provider had prescribed an antibiotic to them or someone in their family that they didn’t think was necessary. And one in five (19 percent) acknowledged that someone in their family had requested antibiotics from a provider, despite the provider recommending against it.

What individuals can do

As health officials emphasize, solving the antibiotic-resistance crisis is going to require a collaborative effort. That means governments, drug companies, farmers, physicians — and patients — need to change their attitudes and behaviors regarding antibiotics.

For patients, that change can start with following these recommendations offered by Consumer Reports:

  • Don’t push for antibiotics. If your doctor says you don’t have a bacterial infection, don’t insist. Ask about other treatments that can help you feel better, such as a pain reliever, throat soother, antihistamine, or decongestant.
  • Ask whether you can fight it off on your own. If bacteria are the cause but your symptoms are mild, ask about trying to fight off the infection without drugs.
  • Request targeted drugs. When possible, your doctor should order cultures to identify the bacteria that caused your infection and prescribe a drug that targets that bug.
  • Use antibiotic creams sparingly. Even antibiotics applied to the skin can lead to resistant bacteria. So use over-the-counter ointments containing bacitracin and neomycin only if dirt remains after cleaning with soap and water.
  • Avoid infections in the first place. That means staying up to date on vaccinations. And it means washing your hands thoroughly and regularly, especially before preparing or eating food, before and after treating a cut or wound, and after using the bathroom, sneezing, coughing, and handling garbage. Plain soap and water is best.

FMI: You can read the Kaiser Family Foundation’s report on its survey on the foundation’s website.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by David Schimpf on 06/24/2019 - 11:17 am.

    Insurance companies, including Medicare and Medicaid, should not pay for any prescription drugs, antibiotic or other, for patients who requested or demanded them contrary to the professional’s judgement. The patient should pay the full price in such scenarios. “Ask your doctor if [XYZ] is right for you” advertising is a terrible thing.

  2. Submitted by Charles Holtman on 06/24/2019 - 02:15 pm.

    Shouldn’t recommendations include (a) not buying or using antibacterial hand soaps; and (b) supporting meat producers that eschew sub-therapeutic antibiotic use?

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