Nov. 14 – Nov. 20 2011 marks the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s fourth annual Get Smart About Antibiotics Week. This week focuses on the appropriate use of antibiotics, how they work and prevention of antibiotic resistance.

Much of the Get Smart campaign material focuses on the proper use of antibiotics in humans with respiratory illnesses. Modules cover sinus infectious, sore throats, colds, ear infections and bronchitis.  Each module examines the infection, what causes it, symptoms and when to use antibiotics versus when not to use antibiotics.



Antibiotics are drugs used to treat infections caused by bacteria; they are ineffective against infections caused by viruses. The first antibiotic was penicillin, discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1929. Fleming, after witnessing the harm it caused during World War I, was determined to find an agent to combat bacteria. Fleming noticed that in some of his used petri dishes mold began to grow. Before cleaning one particular petri dish, Fleming saw that staph bacteria surrounding the mold had been killed. This led to his discovery that Penicillium notatum was effective against bacteria.  It wasn’t until 1938 that penicillin experiments were conducted and it’s antimicrobial properties officially recognized.

Antibiotics work by interfering with bacteria cells to either kill or stop the bacteria from multiplying. They are also effective against parasites and fungi. 


Bacteria versus viruses, in brief

Bacteria are single-cell living organisms that can thrive in a variety of environments, in and outside of our bodies. Most are helpful to bodily processes (digestion, for example) while some can cause serious harm.  Most viruses, on the other hand, do cause disease.  Viruses attack certain cells, hijacking the cell machinery to reproduce more viruses.  Unlike bacteria, viruses cannot survive outside of a host; they are dependent on host cells for survival. 


How resistance develops

As explained in previous Disease Daily articles, antibiotic resistance develops from misuse of antibiotics, misuse which is caused by myriad factors ranging from social stigma, inconsistent supplies, to forgetfulness or lack of knowledge on proper drug regimens. If, for example, an infected person stops taking his or her prescribed antibiotic prior to the removal of all the bacteria in his or her system, he or she leaves bacteria that is, so far, resistant in the system. These bacteria can pass on genetic material to other bacteria, creating more resistant bacteria.

This is an enormous problem because we only have a certain amount of drugs created to combat bacterial diseases. Producing new drugs can take years and billions of dollars. Once a bacterium becomes resistant to all our drugs, we can’t do anything to stop it. Further, a person infected with drug resistant bacteria is able to infect others with these bacteria. Antibiotic resistance does not stop with one infected host.


Another important component of preventing antibiotic resistance is in monitoring the use of antibiotics in livestock.  In this week’s Bovine Veterinarian Magazine, writer Geni Wren and the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) advocate for prudent use of antibiotics in livestock. Among the long list of guidelines disseminated by the AVMA are: reducing the incidence of disease and thus the need for antimicrobials, issuance and dispensing of antimicrobials should only occur within a valid veterinarian-client-patient relationship and veterinarians should strive to ensure proper antimicrobial use on farms.

For more information on CDC’s Get Smart campaign, visit their site and explore the different education modules and material for dissemination. 

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