Perhaps the greatest of all chemotherapy success stories has nothing to do with cancer. Most of us alive today are too young to recall first-hand what I would assert was humanity’s most miraculous use of chemical substances to cure disease. “When I woke up just after dawn on September 28, 1928,” remembered Scottish botanist Alexander Fleming, “I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionize all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer. But I suppose that was exactly what I did.”
Those of us born after the advent of the modern era of antibiotics tend to forget the deadly woes of the age before ours. America’s horrific Civil War was fought prior to Fleming’s rather accidental revolution. 206,000 soldiers died on the battlefield between the first shots at Fort Sumter and surrender at Appomattox Court House. During the same span, 337,000 soldiers died of disease!
It wasn’t until 1945 when penicillin was being mass produced and distributed. But even then, at the outset of release, Alexander Fleming was waving a warning flag. Right from the start Fleming spoke about the potential for resistance to his miracle drug.
So now we move forward to November of 2015. Dr. Lauri Hicks, director of the Centers for Disease Control’s Office of Antibiotic Stewardship speaks at the annual meeting of the American Dental Association. The title of her lecture: “Getting Smart about Antibiotic Use in Dental Practice”. She came to speak to America’s dentists because they, as a group, prescribe roughly 10% of the antibiotics dispensed each year.
It wasn’t that Dr. Hicks spoke at the ADA annual meeting because dentists are less responsible in their antibiotic prescription than any other group of health care providers. No, she came to resurrect the general warnings first spoken by Alexander Fleming. “Health care providers,” she said, “must treat antibiotics as a precious and finite resource.” She spoke that day of the estimated 2 million antibiotic-resistant illnesses and 23,000 deaths that occur annually in the United States, according to a 2013 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.
These warnings are serious business, friends. Alexander Fleming’s miraculous revolution is today pocked with peril-filled holes. Health care providers have too often set aside established guidelines and prescribed antibiotics where they are not indicated. Patients too often fail to follow the instructions provided when they go home with antibiotics. In particular, patients often stop taking their antibiotics as soon as their original symptoms begin to clear. Sadly, this is a pattern that tends to promote the growth and development of antibiotic resistant strains of bacterial pathogens.
My best advice to you would be that you help your health care providers take your antibiotic stewardship seriously! When you find your dentist or physician wanting to prescribe an antibiotic, ask her or him for confirmation that an antibiotic is an essential part of your treatment. And secondly, if an antibiotic is an essential part of your treatment, please be certain to fully follow the directions provided.