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Superbugs created by antibiotics

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'Superbugs' created by antibiotics

By Mel Kohn, M.D.

Earlier this month, my wife and I experienced the anxiety and fear that most parents never want to go through. Our eight year-old daughter was taken by ambulance to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy.

Like most parents in this situation, we were grateful for the great skill and care of the doctors and nurses who helped our daughter.

And we were thankful that the bacteria causing my daughter's illness weren't antibiotic-resistant "superbugs."

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria have been dubbed superbugs because they are extremely difficult to treat. They require longer treatment with stronger, more expensive and potentially more dangerous medications. These infections require extended hospitalization and can cause disability or even death.

Overuse of antibiotics is the primary way superbugs get created. As antibiotics kill susceptible bacteria, this leaves more room and nutrients for powerful, resistant bacteria to grow. They multiply and soon take over.

While this may sound like science fiction, the unfortunate truth is that superbugs are already here.

A 2001 study of illnesses in the Portland area found that 20 percent of infections caused by Streptococcus pneumoniae -- the leading cause of meningitis, pneumonia and ear infections -- were resistant to penicillin.

And only 24 percent of Oregonians know about the danger of antibiotic resistance, according to a recent telephone survey conducted by the state Department of Human Services.

What can we do to stop the spread of superbugs?

Health care providers are half the answer. Several years ago, public health officials began an effort to discourage health practitioners from prescribing antibiotics for coughs, colds and flu.

Working with local infectious disease experts, we developed guidelines for the judicious use of antibiotics and sent them to Oregon physicians. We've given more than 50 lectures about the problem to medical groups around the state.

But the other half of the answer lies with you. Many healthcare practitioners admit that they sometimes prescribe antibiotics unnecessarily because they feel pressured by patients who expect or even demand a prescription.

Here's how you can do something to help solve this problem, particularly now that winter cold and flu season will soon be upon us.

Don't insist on antibiotics for viral infections like colds or flu. They have no effect against viruses and can cause serious side effects.

Take prescribed antibiotics for the full course of treatment; inadequate treatment also contributes to the development of superbugs.

Use antibiotics only under a doctor's care.

Finally, don't share antibiotics or use leftover antibiotics to treat an illness.

This month the Centers for Disease Control launched its national "Get Smart About Antibiotics" campaign. Oregon's antibiotic resistance coalition, AWARE, already has educational efforts under way, so you'll hear about this issue again.

Fifty years ago, before the advent of most of the antibiotics we have today, my daughter might well have died from her infection. I'm glad that we live in a time where we have effective weapons to fight bacterial disease. Let's all help to keep it that way.

More information about antibiotics and Oregon AWARE is on the Web at

Mel Kohn, M.D., M.P.H., is state epidemiologist in the Oregon Department of Human Services. He's also a pediatrician and the father of two.

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