29 percent of California women mistakenly believe a cold or flu should be treated with an antibiotic

Illustrating the extent of Americans’ lack of knowledge about antibiotics, 29 percent of California women queried mistakenly believe a cold or flu should be treated with an antibiotic, according to results of a survey being presented at the 41st Annual Meeting of the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA).

The cold and flu are caused by viruses: antibiotics treat only bacterial infections.

“We weren’t surprised by the number, but we certainly were concerned,” said Kate C. Cummings, M.P.H., epidemiologist for the California Department of Health Services, Infectious Diseases Branch, Berkeley. “If people wrongly believe they need an antibiotic to treat an infection, they may pressure their physicians for the medication, which contributes to the inappropriate use of antibiotics. Inappropriate use of antibiotics adds to the growing problem of resistance, leading to the situation where the antibiotics won’t work when people really need them.”

The California Women’s Health Survey is an annual random telephone survey; in the year 2000, a total of 4012 women were asked if the cold or flu should be treated with an antibiotic and 29 percent said yes.

The 2000 survey results revealed the misunderstanding tended to be more common among women younger than 35 and older than 54. The survey also found that, although women ages 35 to 54 were less likely to think an antibiotic should be prescribed for the cold or flu, women in that age group who were Asian, Black or Hispanic were three times as likely as white women to believe antibiotics should be given for that purpose. It’s unclear why that is, but may be due to socioeconomic or cultural factors, said Cummings.

“For instance, in Mexico, antibiotics are available without a prescription, so some Hispanic women may be more likely to believe it’s appropriate to use them in many situations,” said Cummings.

She said the information is being forwarded to the Alliance Working for Antibiotic Resistance Education (AWARE), a California coalition that is working to educate physicians and consumers about the appropriate use of antibiotics.

The California survey focused on women because they tend to make the health decisions for children, who have the highest rate of antibiotic use outside of the hospital, said Cummings.

Co-authors of a paper on the topic being presented at IDSA by Cummings are J. Rosenberg, S.B. Werner and D.J. Vugia.

IDSA is an organization of physicians, scientists and other health care professionals dedicated to promoting human health through excellence in infectious diseases research, education, prevention and patient care. Major programs of IDSA include publication of two journals, The Journal of Infectious Diseases and Clinical Infectious Diseases, an Annual Meeting, awards and fellowships, public policy and advocacy, clinical affairs and other membership services. The Society, which has 7,000 members, was founded in 1963 and is headquartered in Alexandria, Va.

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