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November 15, 2011 > Get Smart About Antibiotics!

Get Smart About Antibiotics!

The discovery of modern antibiotics dates back to 1929, when British scientist Sir Alexander Fleming observed that a type of mold called Penicillium notatum could prevent the growth of Staphylococcus bacteria. Ten years later, two other scientists, Ernst Chain and Howard Florey, found a way to isolate the antibiotic penicillin and used it to treat soldiers for battlefield wound infections and pneumonia during World War II.

By 1946, penicillin became available to the general public for treating bacterial infections including strep throat, pneumonia and scarlet fever. Additional antibiotics such as sulfa drugs, streptomycin and tetracycline came on the market in the late 1940s and early 1950s, launching the age of antibiotic therapy.

The success of antibiotics was one of the most significant medical achievements of the 20th century, greatly reducing the incidence of illness and death from infectious diseases. Unfortunately, over the years, many disease-causing bacteria have become resistant to antibiotic therapy, partly due to overuse - and misuse - of antibiotics.

"Antibiotic resistance has become a huge public health concern," says infectious disease specialist Dr. Dianne Martin, who co-chairs the Infection Control team at Washington Hospital.

"In the past, as bacteria became resistant to some antibiotics, new antibiotics came on the market," she notes. "In the 1970s and 1980s, for example, there were a couple of new antibiotics introduced every year. Today, however, there aren't as many new antibiotics coming out because of the high cost of drug development. Now we're seeing only a couple of new drugs each decade. There has been some effort to get the federal government to encourage more development of new antibiotics, but we also need to be smarter about how we use the antibiotic drugs that are available."

Since 2008, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has sponsored the annual "Get Smart About Antibiotics Week" each November. This year's observation is scheduled for November 14 - 20. The objective of the campaign is to increase awareness of antibiotic resistance and the importance of appropriate antibiotic use.

"Antibiotics work only on bacterial infections, not on the viruses that cause colds, the flu and most sore throats and bronchitis," Dr. Martin explains. "In many cases, people will pressure their physician to prescribe antibiotics even when the doctor has told them they most likely have a virus. Some patients have actually become angry and left the doctor's office when antibiotics were not prescribed."

The CDC notes that taking antibiotics when you have a viral infection may actually increase your risk of getting an antibiotic-resistant bacterial infection later on. Repeated and improper uses of antibiotics are primary causes of the increase in drug-resistant bacteria. Such antibiotic resistance can cause significant risks for people with common infections that once were easily treatable with antibiotics. When antibiotics fail to work, the consequences can include longer-lasting illnesses, extended hospital stays and the need for more expensive and potentially toxic medications.

"There are some tests we can use to diagnose bacterial infections, such as throat swabs to detect strep throat and urine tests for bladder infections," Dr. Martin says. "In other cases, the diagnosis of a patient's illness as viral or bacterial is based on the physician's observations and experience. If your physician does prescribe an antibiotic, it is important to follow the instructions properly. For example, if you only use the antibiotic for a couple of days instead of taking the full dose, it can cause antibiotic resistance in any remaining bacteria."

The CDC offers some additional useful tips to remember regarding proper use of antibiotics:
* Do not save some of your prescription for the next time you get sick. Discard any leftover medication once you have completed your prescribed course of treatment.

* Take an antibiotic exactly as your physician tells you to. Do not skip doses or stop taking the medication before the full course of treatment even if you are feeling better.

* Do not take antibiotics prescribed for someone else. The antibiotic may not be appropriate for your illness and may delay proper treatment and allow bacteria to multiply.

To ensure the proper use of antibiotics, Washington Hospital has an Antimicrobial Stewardship Committee that evaluates the use of antibiotics within the hospital.

"We look at the drugs that are included in our 'formulary' of medications used in the hospital and compare them to lab results of what bacterial infections are most common in the hospital," Dr. Martin says. "We want to be sure we are prescribing the right drug for the right problem, in the right dosage and for the right amount of time. We also provide this information to our patients' physicians so they can make the best choices for their patients."
Unused or expired medications, including antibiotics, should not be discarded in the trash or flushed down the toilet. Washington Hospital offers Tri-City area residents a convenient, safe and environmentally sound option for disposing of old medications. Drop-off sites are available at the following locations:
* Washington Hospital - Main Lobby, 2000 Mowry Avenue, Fremont
* Washington Hospital Community Health Resource Library - 2500 Mowry Avenue (Washington West), Fremont
* WTMF at Nakamura Clinic - 33077 Alvarado Niles Rd, Union City
* WTMF at Newark - 35500 Dumbarton Court, Newark
* WTMF at Warm Springs - 46690 Mohave Drive, Fremont

For more information about the CDC's "Get Smart About Antibiotics" campaign and the proper use of antibiotics, visit their Web site at

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