America Gets Mixed Score on ''Antibiotics IQ'' Test

America Gets Mixed Score on ''Antibiotics IQ'' Test

WASHINGTON — Nearly nine in 10 Americans recognize that antibiotics are effective treatments for fighting bacterial infections like strep throat, but more than a third mistakenly believe the drugs are also 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 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to gauge Americans' understanding of proper antibiotic use. They are being released as part of CDC's "Get Smart About Antibiotics Week."

Most Americans (79 percent) understand that taking antibiotics when they are not needed can endanger their own health, but only 47 percent understand that doing this can also harm others. According to 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."

"We're encouraged that most Americans understand that antibiotics are effective treatment for bacterial infections" said Lauri Hicks, medical director, CDC's "Get Smart: Know When Antibiotics Work" program, "but many don't know that antibiotics can't cure the common cold. 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."

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 (MRSA) infections, but by 2005, that annual number skyrocketed to 368,000 in the United States. Each year, drug-resistant infections are responsible for about 60,000 deaths, eight million additional days in the hospital, and an extra $26 billion in health care costs.

At the same time, however, drug makers have cut back antibiotic research and development programs because the drugs' limited income tends to discourage investment. Twenty-nine new systemic antibiotics came to market in the 1980s, but that number dropped to 23 in the 1990s and then to just 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." 
Following are additional highlights from the national poll:

  • Most Americans (58 percent) have heard either a "fair amount" or a "great deal" about antibiotic resistance. Of those who have heard a great deal, 68 percent believe it is a "very big problem."
  • More than eight in 10 Americans (86 percent) recognize that it is better to take the full course of antibiotics than to stop taking the drugs even after symptoms have disappeared. In focus groups, however, many of the participants admitted that they often ignore their doctors' advice in this regard.
  • More than half (52 percent) of Americans believe it is likely that they or someone they know will contract an antibiotic-resistant illness.

This poll was conducted for Pew in collaboration with CDC by Hart Research Associates and Public Opinion Strategies.