Be smart: Know when antibiotics work


The cries of her granddaughter awaken Terri from a deep sleep. She moves
quickly to comfort the child before other family members are disturbed. As
Terri touches the child's warm forehead, she is determined to do something
to make her beloved grandchild feel better. She does the right things. She
gives Leda plenty of fluids to drink. She makes preparations for the child
to stay home from day care to rest. She does not give the child

The area doctor examined Leda earlier that day and informed Terri that the
child's illness is caused by a virus. Terri knows that antibiotics do not
fight colds, influenza (commonly called "the flu"), or any other illnesses
caused by viruses. Terri also knows that using antibiotics to treat a cold
or the flu can contribute to antibiotic resistance.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's campaign, "Get Smart: Know
When Antibiotics Work," is urging the public to be smart in its use of
antibiotics in an effort to address antibiotic resistance.

In a joint effort with organizations such as the IHS/Community Health
Representative program, and nonprofit organizations such as the National
Indian Women's Health Resource Center and the National Indian Health Board,
the message of appropriate antibiotic use is being expanded to reach
American Indian and Alaska Native audiences.

Antibiotics will remain effective for curing illnesses longer if we all
make an effort to use them only when needed. As Dr. George Brenneman,
Committee on Native American Child Health chairman, stated: "Increasing
numbers of infections due to antibiotic-resistant bacteria are a major
national health concern. This is especially important in many Indian
communities where bacterial infection (especially skin, lung and ear
infections) rates are high. Making sure antibiotics are used only when
needed is very important and requires shared efforts between patients,
their families, and health care providers."

Antibiotic resistance in bacteria has become a worldwide problem, making
some antibiotics useless for fighting bacterial illnesses that were once
easily treated. Now many of these resistant bacteria grow in communities
risking the health of the elderly, children, people with little or no
immunity, and even healthy adults. Many people don't know that:

1) Antibiotics such as penicillin and ampicillin, etc., will not treat
viral infections;

2) Colds and the flu are viral infections; and

3) Taking antibiotics to treat a viral infection can result in
antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections.

Using antibiotics to treat illnesses caused by viruses such as the flu or
the common cold may seem like a harmless precaution, but antibiotic
resistance leads to troubling results. Antibiotic resistance causes
bacterial infections that are more difficult and more expensive to treat.
These illnesses require taking additional medication -- sometimes three or
four different types of antibiotics. Antibiotic-resistant illnesses may
also result in taking antibiotics for longer periods of time, and sometimes
these infections are life-threatening.

The basis of antibiotic resistance lies in the fact that antibiotics work
by killing bacteria. Some of the bacteria in our bodies are sensitive to
antibiotics, while some are resistant. When we are given antibiotics, the
sensitive bacteria are killed but the resistant ones are not. The resistant
bacteria may multiply.

The best chance antibiotics have of curing illnesses caused by bacteria is
for them to be taken the way your health care provider recommends. If taken
correctly, antibiotics can kill bacteria before they have a chance to
reproduce. If antibiotics are used incorrectly (such as not being taken at
the recommended time and not being taken for the full course), bacteria
that escape death now have an increased chance of reproducing offspring
that won't respond to antibiotics. It is also the reason you should take
every pill at the right time and for the full length of time that your
health care provider prescribes for you.

When used wisely to treat bacterial infection caused by illnesses or in
wounds, antibiotics can have amazing results. So it is important to check
with your doctor or nurse to find out if your illness is viral or
bacterial. It is also important to remember that when antibiotics are
prescribed to treat a bacterial infection, take them exactly as advised by
your health care provider.

As we approach cold and flu season, you should realize that there is no
cure for the common cold. Viral illnesses such as the common cold can
benefit from rest, and a cool mist vaporizer or saline spray may be used as
decongestants. Good hygiene habits like washing your hands and covering
your mouth when you cough can help protect you from germs. An influenza
vaccine (flu shot or nasal spray) may prevent the flu.

The bottom line: knowing about appropriate antibiotic use can help keep you
and your community safe. So we ask you to pass this message along to
others. For more information, talk with your doctor, nurse or community
health representative, or contact the CDC at (800) 246-2675; or visit

Hector Valtierra is currently a graduate student at Tulane University's
School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine in New Orleans and also a
National Biosafety and Biocontainment Training Fellow at the National
Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. After being displaced by Hurricane
Katrina, he is adjusting to autumn in the Washington, D.C. area.

Darcia Johnson is the Multicultural Outreach Coordinator for the Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention's "Get Smart: Know When Antibiotics
Work" campaign. Since graduating from California State University, Chico,
she has worked in various public health capacities, including grassroots
community organizing, program management and development, and internal and
external organizational communications.