Antibiotic overuse, misuse can be harmful to us all

Dr. David M. Berman
Dr. David M. Berman
Published Nov. 12, 2015

Every year, roughly 2 million people in the United States will develop an antibiotic-resistant infection, resulting in 23,000 deaths — more than 60 people each day.

Try to imagine yourself or a family member with a life-threatening infection caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Your doctor comes to the bedside to tell you that there are few, if any, available antibiotics to treat the infection.

As a pediatric infectious disease specialist, these are challenges I face daily. Sometimes there are limited options to treat an infection in a child. We resort to innovative methods of treatment, such as administering intravenous antibiotics for a longer time period, using higher antibiotic doses or going back to antibiotics that were used decades ago, which have more significant side effects. This is the reality for thousands of hospitalized patients because of the growing number of people with antibiotic-resistant infections. Research to develop new antibiotics is at an all-time low, and these medications continue to be used excessively and inappropriately.

Monday marks the start of Get Smart About Antibiotics Week, an annual campaign designed to educate people about antibiotic resistance, as well as the appropriate and safe use of antibiotics. All Children's Hospital Johns Hopkins Medicine and many other hospitals partner with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to raise awareness of the event.

To preserve the power of antibiotics, three key groups need to collaborate with each other:

Health care facilities and providers: Health care facilities need to be accountable for antibiotic use. One way to monitor use and select appropriate antibiotics is to appoint leaders with expertise in antibiotics. The goal of this antimicrobial stewardship is to reduce drug resistance and improve patient care. Antibiotic stewards improve prescribing practices, restrict certain antibiotics and track and report antibiotic use. Health care providers also must work together to share the latest information on antibiotic resistance patterns in their community in order to help select the most effective medication.

Patients and families: Families should never ask a health care provider for an antibiotic. It is the physician's job to determine when an antibiotic is appropriate. It is important to remember that antibiotics only help with bacterial infections, such as strep throat, some ear infections and pneumonia. Antibiotics don't kill viruses like common colds or the flu. They won't prevent the spread of these viruses and may even be harmful.

The meat industry: The meat industry should be required to discontinue the practice of antibiotic use in healthy animals. More than 80 percent of antibiotics produced are given to healthy animals.

As we attempt to combat antibiotic resistance, we also must focus on infection prevention. Underlying chronic health conditions predispose many people to infection. The general health of our communities relies upon good nutrition, regular exercise, immunizations and proper hand-washing hygiene. In many circumstances, basic measures will go a long way to prevent infections.

Dr. David M. Berman is a board-certified pediatric infectious disease specialist at All Children's Hospital Johns Hopkins Medicine.