Public misperceptions linger regarding antibiotic use

Nearly nine in 10 Americans recognize that antibiotics are effective treatments for fighting bacterial infections, but more than a third mistakenly believe the drugs also are appropriate treatments for viral infections such as the common cold.

These findings come from a new poll conducted by The Pew Charitable Trusts in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to gauge Americans’ understanding of proper antibiotic use. Poll findings are being released as part of the CDC’s “Get Smart About Antibiotics Week,” Nov. 12-18.

Most Americans (79%) understand that taking antibiotics when not needed can endanger their own health, but only 47% understand that doing so can also harm others. According to the CDC, “antibiotic-resistant bacteria can quickly spread to family members, schoolmates and co-workers — threatening the community with a new strain of infectious disease that is more difficult to cure and more expensive to treat.”

“Antibiotic-resistant infections will claim increasing numbers of lives unless we do more to ensure all Americans take these life-saving drugs only when they are needed and as directed by their doctors,” Lauri Hicks, DO, medical director of the CDC’s “Get Smart: Know When Antibiotics Work” program, said in a news release.

Driven by antibiotic overuse, superbugs pose a growing threat to human health. In 1993, for example, 1,900 Americans were hospitalized with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus infections, but by 2005, that annual number skyrocketed to 368,000. Each year, drug-resistant infections are responsible for about 60,000 deaths, 8 million additional days in the hospital and an extra $26 billion in healthcare costs.

At the same time, drug makers have cut back antibiotic research and development programs because the drugs’ limited income tends to discourage investment. For example, 29 new systemic antibiotics came to market in the 1980s, but that number dropped to 23 in the 1990s and nine in the 2000s.

“Most Americans understand when and how to use antibiotics properly and are aware that resistance is an emerging threat,” said Allan Coukell, director of medical programs for Pew. “But superbugs are emerging faster than new drugs to fight them.”

Among additional poll highlights, 58% of Americans have heard either a “fair amount” or a “great deal” about antibiotic resistance. Of those who have heard a great deal, 68% believe it is a “very big problem.”

More than eight in 10 Americans (86%) recognize that taking the full course of antibiotics is better than stopping the regimen even after symptoms have disappeared. In focus groups, however, many participants admitted to often ignoring their doctors’ advice in this regard.

More than half (52%) of Americans believe they or someone they know likely will contract an antibiotic-resistant illness.

A PDF of the poll summary is available at

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