Most of us will have at least heard about the efforts to limit the use of antibiotics to those cases where they can be effective. The aptly named ‘Do Bugs Need Drugs
’ (DBND) program provides community education about hand washing and the responsible use of antibiotics. It is geared towards decreasing antibiotic overuse and misuse and the spread of resistant organisms.
You might ask ‘why do we need a special program to teach us how to wash our hands?’ and that would be a valid question. The answer is simple: because hand washing is the single most effective tool in preventing the spread of infections. About 80% of infections are spread by the hands so keeping them free of germs makes a ton of sense.
The two types of infection we commonly face are viral and bacterial. Viral infections include colds, flu, laryngitis, bronchitis and most sore throats. These tend to be more contagious than bacterial infections and can make you just as sick. How contagious? If more than one person in the family has the same illness, chances are that it’s a virus. Antibiotics do not work against viruses.
Bacterial infections lead to pneumonia and strep throat and are less common than viral infections. Nor do they spread as easily. But antibiotics do work against most bacteria. That is, unless we are discussing antibacterial resistance. This is where a bacteria has developed resistance to a given antibiotic.
The health threat of antibiotic resistance is that infections including pneumonia, strep throat or those associated with minor injuries, could become untreatable. Resistance to antibiotics comes from having used them when they are not needed such as for viral infections like colds and flu. Once they become resistant, these bacteria cannot be killed by an antibiotic. Another related issue is the slow pace of new antibiotic development, even as bacteria are becoming increasingly resistant to the existing antibiotics.
This brings us back to “Do Bugs Need Drugs”. The program has been an effective tool for community education and has shown positive results. One of its key messages is that good hand washing practices are the best way to stop the spread of infections. Public Health Nurses and their early childhood development partners in many communities are offering hand washing demonstrations for preschool and Kindergarten readiness classes. The sessions have proved very popular, especially when kids are introduced to the “Glow Germ” tool. First, children have a special powder or cream applied to their hands and then are instructed to wash their hands. After washing, a ‘black light’ is used to show all the areas of their hands that missed getting washed. Typically, the areas are under the nails, around Band-Aids, and on the backs of hands and wrists.
We might all benefit from the Glow Germ tool, but at least we can ensure we wash our own hands effectively. That means soap and warm water and getting to every spot on the hands. It also means washing hands whenever it is appropriate: before meals; after using the toilet or helping a child use the toilet; before and after changing diapers; after handling pets and objects touched by others. Rounding out the hand washing advice, avoid using antibacterial soap as it just adds to the resistance problem.
So, do bugs need drugs? Sometimes they do, but why not avoid the problem in the first place with good hand washing habits, the best way to avoid the spread of infections.
Dr. Paul Martiquet is the Medical Health Officer for Rural Vancouver Coastal Health including Powell River, the Sunshine Coast, Sea-to-Sky, Bella Bella and Bella Coola.