Antibiotics: Is abstention sometimes the best medicine?


MUHC recognizes National Antibiotic Awareness Week from February 12 to 18

Antibiotics are a vital weapon in curing disease. Yet, ever since the mass introduction of antibiotics such as penicillin in the 1940s, numerous studies have shown that over-prescription of antibiotics has contributed to an unnecessary increase in bacterial resistance to available treatments. From February 12 to 18 the McGill University Health Centre will recognize Antibiotic Awareness Week.

Antibiotic Awareness Week was established in 1996 by Canada's National Information Program on Antibiotics (NIPA), a coalition of Canadian physicians, pharmacists and patient organizations. Since NIPA began educating health care professionals and patients about the overuse of antibiotics, prescriptions for oral antibiotics have fallen by some 12 per cent in Canada.

"The message that antibiotics are not always necessary has been getting through slowly but surely," says Dr. Michael Libman, an expert in infection control and director of the MUHC's Division of Infectious Diseases. Antibiotics are not effective against viruses, such as colds and flu.

While abstaining from antibiotics is not always possible, cautions Dr. Libman, there exist simple ways for sick people to avoid spreading microbes and infecting others. "Washing one's hands regularly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds remains a basic way to avoid contagion," he says. "Etiquette is also important. Rather than coughing into one's hands, as our mothers taught us, coughing into a disposable tissue can really help reduce passing on viruses, which are spread over surfaces, hands and through the air."

Sylvie Carle, MUHC associate director of Pharmacy-Pharmaceutical Care, advises: "If an antibiotic is prescribed to treat a bacterial infection, the medication should be taken as directed by your doctor or pharmacist. Even if you feel better, do not stop taking a prescription part way through the course of treatment; use the entire prescription. Do not share antibiotics with anyone else. Taking an inappropriate drug makes the resistance problem worse."

About the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC)/> The McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) is a comprehensive academic health institution with an international reputation for excellence in clinical programs, research and teaching. The MUHC is a merger of five teaching hospitals affiliated with the Faculty of Medicine at McGill University — the Montreal Children’s, Montreal General, Royal Victoria, and Montreal Neurological Hospitals, as well as the Montreal Chest Institute. Building on the tradition of medical leadership of the founding hospitals, the goal of the MUHC is to provide patient care based on the most advanced knowledge in the health care field, and to contribute to the development of new knowledge.

For more information:

National Information Program on Antibiotics or

Canadian Committee on Antibiotic Resistance or

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Seeta Ramdass
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