In 1900, the top three causes of death were infectious diseases. Today, only one infectious condition — influenza and pneumonia — is among the top 10 causes of death (and it is eighth). In the last 100 years, the overall death rate from infectious diseases has plummeted, largely due to improvements in sanitation, food safety, and vaccines — and the availability of antibiotics. That success has misled many people into thinking that severe problems caused by infectious diseases are relics of the past. They aren’t troubled by the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or “superbugs.”

Each year in the U.S., at least 2 million people fall ill — and 23,000 people die — from infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have identified antibiotic-resistant bacteria as one of the leading public health threats of the 21st century. In March, the White House released a National Action Plan for Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria to provide a road map for preventing antibiotic resistance and saving lives.

Amid this growing concern, WHO has declared Nov. 16-22 as World Antibiotic Awareness Week. The goal is to increase understanding about the problem of antibiotic resistance and the importance of appropriate antibiotic use.

To encourage Minnesotans to use antibiotics wisely and stem the tide of resistant infections, Gov. Mark Dayton has proclaimed Nov. 16-22, 2015, as Get Smart — Know When Antibiotics Work Week in Minnesota.

Antibiotics are powerful tools for fighting infections, particularly those associated with surgery, cancer treatments and intensive care. But they aren’t for whatever ails you. Using antibiotics gives rise to strains of bacteria that become resistant, which can then multiply and spread.

Antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria change in a way that reduces the effectiveness of antibiotics in controlling their growth. Infections with antibiotic-resistant bacteria have become more common in health care and community settings, and many bacteria have become resistant to multiple kinds of antibiotics. This leads to higher health care costs, poorer outcomes and a need for treatments with more toxic drugs.

While the public health and health care communities are working hard on this issue, citizens also have a key role to play. It is important to be aware that antibiotics are effective only against bacterial infections, not viral infections. Using antibiotics to treat colds or other infections caused by viruses does not work, and it increases the likelihood that if you get a subsequent bacterial infection, it will be with a resistant strain. Further, antibiotics, like all medicines, may have side effects and should not be used unless indicated.

Here are additional actions that can help:

• Decrease the need for antibiotics by avoiding infections. Wash your hands properly and get recommended vaccines.

• Do not ask for antibiotics when your doctor thinks you do not need them.

• When you are given a prescription for antibiotics, take them exactly as your doctor prescribes. Never skip doses or stop early unless your doctor tells you to do so.

• Only take antibiotics that have been prescribed for you; do not share or use leftover antibiotics. Antibiotics treat specific infections. Taking the wrong medicine may make things worse.

• Do not save antibiotics for the next illness. Properly dispose of any leftover medication once the prescribed course of treatment is completed. Information on proper disposal of medication can be found at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency website at

• Learn more about this issue by visiting

We’ve all benefited from antibiotics over the last century. But we can’t take these tools for granted. We need to keep these tools as sharp as possible, and Get Smart About Antibiotics!


Ed Ehlinger is commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Health.