CWA: The devil you know—antibiotic resistant bacteria


CWA is the Conference on World Affairs at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Now in it’s 63rd year, the conference brings together scientists, politicians, activists, journalists, artists, and more for a week of fascinating conversations. It’s free, and open to the public. Think of CWA as the democratic version of TEDtalks. I’m at the conference all this week and will be posting and tweeting about some of the interesting things that I learn.

I’m speaking on three panels today at the Conference on World Affairs, and just finished up my second—all about “Superbugs and Pandemics”. There’s lots of information about antibiotic resistant bacteria that has become kind of old hat to me, and probably to you, as well. But Joel Gallant, professor of medicine and epidemiology at Johns Hopkins, offered up a couple of interesting twists to facts I thought I already knew.

First, while 1/3 of Americans still believe that antibiotics are the right medication to treat a cold, most of us are probably aware that colds are caused by viruses and, thus, antibiotics are little more than placebos in this case. Gallant repeated this fact, but added that ear infections, also, didn’t need to be treated with antibiotics, even though they can be caused by bacteria.

“Europe doesn’t use antibiotics to treat ear infections and they have the same outcomes for treatment as we do,” he said. “In the United States, we routinely prescribe antibiotics for ear infections, not because they’re necessary, but because they can prevent rare complications and we’re worried about being sued.”

Second, it’s also relatively common knowledge that antibiotics are over-used in America. Gallant added some nuance to that, which I think is both interesting and important. So you get the context of this quote, he’s specifically talking about the proliferation of antibacterial toys, cookware, soaps, etc.—not the overuse or misuse of antibiotics, themselves, which is different.

“We don’t know whether anti-bacterial everything contributes to the antibiotic resistances that we’re seeing. But we do know that these products don’t help. In fact, we have evidence that kids need everyday exposure to help build their immune systems.”

Gallant added that things like alcohol gels are fine, and useful. But they’re useful because they’re basically a substitute for handwashing, if you’re in a place where you can’t wash, or if the use of soap is drying out your skin. It’s also worth noting that he’s talking about everyday life, here. Not what should or shouldn’t happen in a hospital setting.

Image of MRSA growing in culture courtesy Flickr user Simon Goldenberg, via CC.