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Danger of Antibiotics Misuse in Response to Biothreat

By Vicki Wolf, KERA 90.1 Independent Reporter

Dallas, TX – Vicki Wolf, Independent Reporter, KERA 90.1: While we worry about anthrax, smallpox, and even new microbes for biological warfare, the overuse and misuse of antibiotics has created a generation of superbugs. Some types of tuberculosis and staph infections have become resistant to antibiotics. According to the Annals of Internal Medicine, of more than 50 million visits to physicians for colds, upper respiratory infections and bronchitis, half resulted in unnecessary antibiotic prescriptions. Dr. Robert Haley, Chief of Epidemiology at The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, says hospitals in Dallas are seeing people who've had severe reactions.

Dr. Robert Haley, Chief of Epidemiology, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center: Stocking up on antibiotics and particularly taking antibiotics when you don't need them is really serious business. We have people in our burn unit, for example, here at Parkland who have lost almost all of their skin; it's like a full body burn from severe allergic reaction to ciprofloxacin or doxycycline or azitromycin or penicillin. Those can produce a life-threatening allergic reaction.

Wolf: Dr. Haley says only those exposed to anthrax would need to be treated with antibiotics. Meanwhile, the public health communities in Dallas and Tarrant Counties have been preparing for a bioterrorist attack. Physicians like Dr. Haley have joined with police, fire and health care organizations to detect and control any outbreak. Dr. Stephen Johnston, director of UT Southwestern's Center for Biomedical Inventions, says his group is working to produce vaccines quickly in response to biothreats. One promising treatment he's working on is the parapox vaccine, a genetically engineered virus that acts as a supervaccine to protect against a lot of different pathogens for a short period of time. Dr. Stephen Johnston, Director of the Center for Biomedical Inventions, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center: We really don't know how it works, really, but it does. And the hope is that we could make a commercial product that would replicate what the killed virus does, so that in times of dire need, someone could take this just before, or just after, exposure and get some form of protection.

Wolf: Of more immediate concern to public health officials is the flu. This illness kills 20,000 people in the United States annually. Dr. Haley says flu symptoms and the first stages of anthrax are similar, which could cause some confusion and unwarranted fear.

Haley: It's a high fever with severe body aches, chest pain and a dry cough. That's what the first stages of anthrax looks like. And it would be better if everybody got their flu shot so we didn't have so much flu going around and confuse everybody and make everybody worry about having anthrax.

Wolf: A full supply of flu vaccine will be available late in the flu season this year because fewer companies are producing it. Dr. Haley urges people who have a serious illness like heart disease, lung disease or diabetes to get the flu shot now. He says by mid-November there should be plenty of flu vaccine and everybody else should get their shots then. For KERA-FM, I'm Vicki Wolf.