A recent outbreak of childhood meningitis (meningo-coccus) in Israel, where there were several fatalities, is not a call for alarm either within the Jewish state or the United States.
The reality is that everyone carries a variety of bacteria in their nose, tonsils and skin. It's estimated that some 7 percent to 10 percent of all kids are carriers of the disease in their respiratory tracts. Doctors and scientists are still trying to understand what factors (if there are any) might be involved in the activation of the illness.
Nonetheless, it is important for parents to monitor their children closely when they develop respiratory tract (or viral) infections, such as the flu or a bad cold, which is the most common infection found among kids and young adults. Meningitis, which can mimic symptoms of the flu, can be treated quickly and efficiently if diagnosed in its early stages.
However, the dangerous fad of treating most flu-like or cold symptoms with antibiotics among a growing number of doctors in Israel and the United States has led to a growing resistance to a series of antibiotic medications. It is a fact that in countries like Israel and America, the usage (i.e., prescription) of antibiotics is incorrect in 50 percent of all cases.
Upper-respiratory-tract infections are viral in nature, and cannot be cured with a simple dose of antibiotics. In many European countries, such as Holland, Denmark and Sweden, doctors severely restrict the usage of antibiotics. Because of this, the rate of resistance to a well-known antibiotic such as penicillin is much lower than in other developed countries.
Twenty years ago, those suffering severe respiratory infections such as pneumonia (pneumococcal bacteria) were treated with penicillin. As a point of fact, pneumococcal bacteria are the most common form of bacteria found in our respiratory tracts. Today, the rate of resistance to penicillin is anywhere from 20 percent to 40 percent.
If you were recently prescribed a dose of penicillin, it would be possible for many doctors to find bacteria in your tonsils that have become resistant to penicillin. This would be true of other people in the same general population area, since "resistance" affects an entire region.
Today, people are dying from bacterial infections because they have become completely resistant to the antibiotics available in the marketplace. And very few new antibiotics have come into the marketplace during the last few years.
Like most things in life, it comes down to financial realities. A pharmaceutical company would have to invest nearly $1 billion for the roughly six to 10 years it takes to develop a new drug, which includes the process of receiving approval and then marketing it to the medical community. The abuse of antibiotics has also caused the pharmaceutical industry to reduce the development of new drugs.
So, how can we all play an effective role in controlling these phenomena?
The challenge for medical professionals is to drastically reduce the number of prescriptions for antibiotics in the local community and hospitals. However, it is also incumbent upon the average person not to run to their local doctor and push him/her to "give me something right away."
It may be hard to accept waiting out an uncomfortable viral infection for a few days. But the continuous abuse of antibiotic medications, which have no therapeutic effect on simple infections, can carry far greater risks. u
Dr. Raul Raz is director of the Infectious Diseases Department at the Emek Medical Center in Afula, Israel.