Easy drugs from weak doctors

Put down the pill bottle and back away slowly. Aha! What’s this? Expired antibiotics? You’re in big trouble, buddy. Actually we all are. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are everywhere, swarming over hospital towel-racks and bedsteads and heading right for our soft bits when we’re already feeling sick. Nature is, proverbially, short of mercy. But we’re making the problem way worse by misusing what were once “miracle drugs,” but have somehow become “whiny entitlement drugs.”

Look at this new study conducted for the Public Health Agency of Canada. According to Tuesday’s Citizen, the study “found almost one in three Canadians either wrongly believes antibiotics are effective against colds or doesn’t know if they are. Only 44 per cent know antibiotics kill bacteria, but not viruses. Close to half incorrectly think recent use of an antibiotic protects against reinfection or don’t know whether it does … one in 10 Canadians has used leftover antibiotics from old prescriptions belonging to them or someone else.”

Of course people wouldn’t be able to hoard expired antibiotics and take them for colds and other virus-based illnesses if doctors didn’t sometimes prescribe them just to get loud rude people out of their offices. In Britain, where the problem is so bad the government just issued strict new guidelines to doctors not to give antibiotics for coughs, colds and ear infections, the Daily Telegraph notes that family doctors “claim they often feel under pressure from patients who are angered if they are refused treatment.”

I can’t help thinking it’s a breach of medical ethics to give in to make these cretins go away. But I have a lot of sympathy for Canadian and British doctors, who are overworked, underpaid and treated like serfs by a public that seems to think their state-given rights include not only free access to whatever treatment does exist, but who also think that a treatment must exist for whatever is bothering them.

Those doctors willing to pacify us with pills, as though we were children getting lollipops, are responding to what is plainly widespread and socially condoned behaviour. (In fact they’d probably get in a lot more trouble for giving candy to kids in an age that gobbles antibiotics, but shuns sugar.) And knowing the difference between a bacterium and a virus, even in the “information age,” isn’t snobby pedantry like knowing the Venetian from the Florentine school of Renaissance painters. We aren’t going to die if we mistake a Donatello for a Tortellini. Yet far more people know their star sign than their blood type even though the latter won’t even help you get a date any more. And people succumb to ridiculous scares about cell phones but don’t pay attention to bugs that can kill their kids.

Most people also have no idea what it was like to live in an era without antibiotics. “Hey, I scratched my finger.” “Oh. Goodbye.” Of course not every wound was fatal. But American president Calvin Coolidge had an all-too-typical experience of watching helplessly in 1924 as his 16-year-old son blistered a toe playing lawn tennis on the White House grounds, developed blood poisoning, and died. It would be silly to go back to those days because we can’t be bothered to read the label or just decide not to believe it.

On that last point, pollsters and analysts have recently hailed a “decline in deference” among Canadians, as though rudeness were a virtue. That deference is a bad thing is a common misconception among intellectuals, though it’s odd to hear it from the same people who praise Canada’s differences from the famously egalitarian United States. In any case, the American ideal required people, in place of deference to their superiors, to be self-reliant and community minded.

Abusing free drugs manifests neither quality. And insisting that the government look after our health care sounds deferential to me, even if we’re also whiny. But let’s make the best of it. The only proper way to get antibiotics, aside from a few ointments, is from a pharmacist on the advice of a doctor. And they both tell you exactly what to do. Take the pills as instructed, complete the treatment even if you feel better, don’t hoard old pills for some arbitrary use later on. Oh, and if you get the sniffles don’t go to the doctor. Just take some quack remedy you found online and the cold will be gone in seven days instead of lasting a whole week.

I don’t want to die of some wretched superbug because people were too lazy or insolent to follow simple directions on a bottle, or had a misplaced sense of entitlement that the universe owed them a cure for the common cold. So I say again, put down the bottle and back away. Doctor’s orders.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]