Poll Shows 41% of American Adults Believe Antibiotics Treat Viruses

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Despite producing more Nobel laureates than any other country, the United States has a bad reputation for incompetence in science, particularly when it comes to evolution, medicine, and climate change. A new poll from YouGov does nothing to help that image, as it recently revealed that 41% of American adults believe antibiotics can effectively treat viral infections. More specifically, 35% claimed antibiotics could treat the flu, while 24% believe it is a good treatment for the common cold. Beyond just being wrong, this misconception is dangerous.

Here is the problem: Bacteria and viruses are not even almost the same thing. Sure, they are both too small to be seen without a microscope, they can cause infections, and can even cause similar symptoms, but they are biologically very different from one another. This means that what is effective against bacteria will not work on a virus. Rather than treating the actual infection at hand, taking unneeded medication does little more than contribute to the growing threat of global antibiotic resistance

Further embarrassment came when the most recent Food Demand Survey results were released, showing that 86% of those polled (exact number unknown, but at least 1,000) support mandatory labeling of genetically engineered food, while 80% support similar labeling for food containing DNA. There are really only two possible ways to explain this. Either some were confused and assumed the question was referring to modified DNA (which would be the same as genetically engineered food), or there are actually at least 800 people in Oklahoma who literally do not understand that all plants and animals have DNA, and therefore every single type of food would require a label. For sanity’s sake, it’s safer to assume the benefit of the doubt.

So what’s the deal? Are average Americans really caught in an anti-science vortex while the rest of the world seems to have it all figured out? Not exactly.

When YouGov performed the same survey in Great Britain last July asking about the efficacy of antibiotics, they also had 41% of participants say antibiotics were useful in treating viral infections. Brits did fare better than Americans as things got more specific though, as 21% believed antibiotics could treat the flu and only 8% said it would work for a cold.

Australians, on the other hand, had very different results. Last June, a survey revealed that an astonishing 65% of Australian adults believe antibiotics are effective in treating a cold or the flu. That number spiked to 71% in the 18-34 age group, and the 50+ group was the lowest at 60%.

Globally, it appears there is still a considerable amount of basic scientific education that needs to be done. This responsibility should fall heaviest on general practitioners, but it appears they might be part of the problem, prescribing antibiotics inappropriately to appease patients. 

Last summer it was found that 45% of British GPs admitted to prescribing antibiotics when they knew it wouldn’t help treat the condition at hand, and 28% did so if they weren’t sure. Last November, it was revealed that about half of all antibiotics prescribed in Australia are done inappropriately. A study released last March indicated that 37% of patients who received antibiotics in American hospitals might not have been given an appropriate line of treatment.

If there is ever confusion, here’s a quick and dirty guide: Antibiotics treat bacterial infections. Antivirals treat viral infections. Antifungals treat fungal infections. Antiprotozoals treat protozoan infections. When dealing with medication, “antimicrobial” is essentially a catch-all term to describe all of the previously stated drugs. Don’t try to bully your doctor into giving you medicine you don’t need, and be sure to verify that the treatment will be effective before taking potentially needless medications.

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