06/19/2017 01:06 EDT | Updated 06/19/2017 01:09 EDT

Our Teens Could Be Facing A Dangerous Post-Antibiotic Future

There's a common belief the actions of our youth today dictate what will happen in the future. In many ways this is true, but usually only on at the personal and local levels. When it comes to major global changes, we tend to give this statement less credence. After all, worldwide changes take time and may require several generations to achieve.

There is one exception to this rule in the global health community. A need exists for rapid change in the social mindset of the next generation on antibiotics. If our youth do not appreciate the challenges facing public health officials today, they may end up living under the shadow of untreatable bacterial infections known as the post-antibiotic era.

teen sick crowd

(Photo: Joakimbkk via Getty Images)

This requirement makes perfect sense. Unfortunately, figuring out how to get younger individuals to pay attention and heed the recommendations requires far more than some quick thinking. A plan must be in place in order to reach them and ensure they understand the stakes.

At one time, this might have been easy facilitated through educational videos, pamphlets, and discussions in schools. But that has changed thanks to modern technological communication. Attention spans have decreased significantly and traditional methods are becoming obsolete. Without modern educational strategies is in place, the youth cannot be expected to know or even care about the plight of these potentially life-saving drugs.

Before any policies can be made, however, we need to know about the perceptions of youth regarding antibiotics. While we may suspect they have little to no knowledge or concern about antibiotic resistance, we need to know whether this theory is correct. But these types of studies simply do not exist making any attempt at developing plans for action potentially useless.

Last week, we finally attained a glimpse of the youth view on antibiotics and resistance. It was due to a UK group of researchers who undertook an examination of the perceptions of British teenagers on the topic of antibiotics in respiratory illness and resistance. The results of the study confirmed the theories as well as opened our eyes to unanticipated problems moving forward.

The majority - save for those taking science courses - did not know antibiotics are used solely for bacterial infections.

The team talked with 74 teenagers between the ages of 16 and 18. The volunteers participated in focus groups and also one-on-one interviews. The topics included such items as the individuals' history of taking antibiotics, perceptions of antibiotics, management of respiratory infections particularly colds and the flu, the choice of self-care in place of a doctor, and finally, antimicrobial resistance. The students were allowed to express their views freely without any biased response from the interviewers.

When the results came back, it was clear the students knew antibiotics were treatments for infections. However, the majority -- save for those taking science courses -- did not know antibiotics are used solely for bacterial infections. This aligned with the realization most students did not know the difference between a bacterial and viral infection.

While this information was expected to some extent, there were some surprises in store. In some cases, students equated antibiotics to painkillers. This was a rather troublesome finding suggesting more needs to be done to demonstrate the uniqueness of antibiotics as a medical treatment. In addition, the students had a less than trusting view of their parents. At best, the adults were advisers on health; at worst, they knew less than the students themselves. This suggested any attempts at using parents to influence their kids would most likely end up failing.

When it came to the major topic of interest, resistance, the results revealed teenagers had a sense of what antibiotic resistance meant but the phenomenon did not affect them. The topic was not a concern to them or their peers. They also did not equate the link between personal antibiotic use and the coming post-antibiotic era. The decision lied solely in the hands of the physician. This was due in part to the belief new antibiotics will always surface. While the participants understood this process would take time, they did not appreciate the reality of fewer drugs in the pipeline.


(Photo: Istockphoto via Getty Images)

The results of this study reveal a rather bumpy road ahead for public health officials. Clearly, misinformation abounds. This is due in part to the absence of proper education in schools (apart from science courses), a lack of trust in parental guidance, and an overall apathy towards antibiotic resistance. As to paths to remediate this situation, they are limited at best.

Finding a direction forward no doubt requires some type of intervention to improve teens' knowledge of antibiotics and resistance. The best place for this may be in schools in areas outside of traditional science classes. Events such as assemblies, class visits from experts, and artistic competitions all may serve to improve knowledge in these individuals.

There is also a government option to help in this cause. Antibiotic resistance should be considered a priority for ministries dealing with youth. Inasmuch as exercise, diet and mental health are important, for the sake of our future, antibiotics and the rise in resistance should be given proper attention. Not to mention, a universal message can improve the situation nationwide.

As to when these programs should be implemented, the answer is simple: as soon as possible. With increasing reports of multi-drug and pan-resistance, the clock continues to tick towards a post-antibiotic era. If we do not engage action in our youth now, the future of our health will be rather dismal as it will be dictated by bacterial pathogens.

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