None of this, however, is to discount the danger of some bacteria and the millions of lives that have been saved by hygienic practices and the judicious use of antibiotics. Hand washing with plain soap and water for 20 seconds or cleansing with an alcohol-based sanitizer for 15 seconds remains the most effective way to prevent infection.
The Rise of Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria
The other issue that the FDA is addressing through this action is the rise of bacteria that are now resistant to treatments like antibiotics. Antibiotic resistance is the ability of a microorganism to resist the effects of an antibiotic to which it was once sensitive. The unnecessary and broad prescribing of antibiotics has led to this increase in resistance and serious infections which are becoming more deadly. Each year, there are more than 700,000 deaths worldwide due to antibiotic resistance with 10 million per year predicted to occur by the year 2050.
One example of an increasingly antibiotic resistant bacterium is Clostridium Difficile (or “C.Diff”), which causes more than 200,000 cases of a serious and often fatal infection of the colon in the US each year. C.Diff can make your grandparent’s simple hospital stay morph into a life-threatening contagious illness. This can occur because of the altered balance of “good vs. bad” bacteria in the intestines and the overgrowth of the toxic C.Diff bacteria. Complications can occur even when antibiotics are used appropriately, but we need to focus on decreasing unnecessary prescribing, such as for patients with viral conditions like the common cold. Antibiotics don’t treat viral infections. Never. Ever.
While the main cause of this increasing resistance is the misuse of antibiotics, this is part of a much larger issue. We are also contributing to resistance when we overuse anti-bacterial products. You can think of the issue of antibiotic resistance as an arms race between humans and the bad bacteria. Our efforts to blindly avoid bacteria are only tipping this arms race in the favor of the bad bacteria.
So what can you do? Remember that bacteria aren’t the enemy and we need a diverse balance of good and bad bacteria in and on our bodies and in our environments. Help your children build up their own defense to the bad bacteria. Let the dog lick your child. Allow your child to play on the floor. Don’t follow her around with anti-bacterial wipes. And only take antibiotics when it is appropriate. Remember that we can be clean without trying to be sterile. And we’ll all be much better off.