Kids Don’t Know Antibiotics

A recent Harris survey reveals that 61% of children aged eight to eighteen think that viruses can be stopped by antibiotics. The Harris Interactive summary explains why this matters (italics mine):

Today’s young people, tweens (ages 8 to 12) and teens (ages 13 to 18) are raised in a world where potentially deadly viruses frequently make news headlines. In addition to Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) the virus that causes Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), recent public attention has also focused on viruses such as those which cause bird flu (avian influenza), Human Papillomavirus (HPV) and Hepatitis C (HepC). Prevention messages often target youth and the success of this messaging may well be influenced by kids’ and teens’ assessment of their own risk and their understanding of what viruses are. Recently, Harris Interactive posed a series of questions to young people about viruses and the illnesses they cause. An astonishing 61 percent of youths agree that antibiotics can protect them from catching a virus. This result and others indicate that youths do not necessarily recognize the differences between viruses and other causal agents of illness (such as bacteria), and their beliefs regarding the efficacy of prevention options reflect this.

In other words, a lot of kids believe that serious viral diseases can be cured with antibiotics, when, in fact, treatment is difficult or non-existent. I’m hoping this is the optimism of the young, combined with ignorance. The good news, at least, is that most kids (>95%) think that handwashing can prevent viral transmission. If there were one public health measure I wish would be widely adopted, it would be handwashing.
Come to think of it, since I’ve been in the new digs, I haven’t ranted once about handwashing. I might have to do something about that…

This entry was posted in Antibiotics, Influenza, Microbiology, Public Health, Viruses. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Kids Don’t Know Antibiotics

  1. BilZ0r says:

    Well that’s not thoroughly surprising. 8-18…. I wouldn’t expect someone under about 14, to recognize the different between viruses and bactaria, which diseases are caused by what pathogen, and what treatments can be used for which pathogen. It’s a relatively advanced question. If the study was asking kids between 16-18, and you got the same answer, then I would be concerned.

  2. For adults, the nubmer might be fifty percent. This is according to a 2002 Harris survey that says 49% of adults “believe that antibiotics are at least somewhat effective in treating colds and flus.” It sounds like they asked the children a slightly different question, but the adult survey still sounds concerning.
    The survey is here:
    except you have to add a “.com” after “harrisinteractive” because the spam filter won’t let me type it there.
    Mad Biologist: I added the “.com”

  3. John McKay says:

    I’m not sure how valid I am as an example, since I grew up before AIDS, but I didn’t really internalize the difference between viruses and other pathogens until after I had a college degree. They were all “germs” and penicillin killed germs.

  4. Laura says:

    This came up today at work. The bathroom near my work area in the hospital ( I’m a nurse) is truely disgusting. Another nurse and I were trying to decide, when faced with a putrid sink with taps you have to touch, no paper towels to turn off the tap and then use to open the door, and liquid soap that does not foam- we were trying to decide if you are better off skipping the handwashing, touching as little as possible, and then washing your hands asap outside said little room of horrors. We had both noticed that the other left the restroom and then immediately went to a nearby sink and washed. We actually both have above average hand hygiene, and nurses are pretty virulent ( sorry, pun) handwashers. Other than tattle to housekeeping and infection control, what’s the real biology answer to this? (And purell. Little bottles of hand sanitizer in every pocket.) Where is an agar plate when I need one?

  5. Orac says:

    n other words, a lot of kids believe that serious viral diseases can be cured with antibiotics, when, in fact, treatment is difficult or non-existent.

    I can tell you as a physician that lots adults believe this too; so why are you surprised? I don’t know what the percentage is, but ask any primary care doctor. They get patients asking for antibiotics for colds all the time.

  6. BilZ0r,
    the numbers aren’t that different between 8-14 & 15-18
    have the nurses talked to the ID doctor at your facility (if there is one)? He or she might be a very good ally in cleaning up the bathroom, particularly if the staff is debating about washing their hands. Cleaning the bathroom is a very good way to stop nosocomial infections.
    I’m surprised because I expect kids to be smarter about certain things than their parents. There are always lags in dissemination of information: from the basic researcher, to the clinician, to the college educator (and textbook writers), to K-12 teachers (and their textbooks); these lags can be decades–and that’s assuming the students have modern textbooks. Also, a significant fraction of adults (the elderly) last learned any biology in an era before DNA was established as the genetic code. These lags are often decades long as it takes a long time for information to trickle out, but considering penicillin entered widespread use in the 40s, I think we’re well beyond any lag phase, and are now just in the realm of ignorance. That’s what’s shocking, particularly in the era of HIV/AIDS.

  7. mark says:

    What’s the percentage of adults who think such ills can be cured with doses containing 0 percent medicine, or magnetic patches, or coffee enemas?
    I guess the hope was to teach them while they’re young and capable of learning, but maybe that’s not working.

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