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Am Fam Physician. 1999;59(8):2097-2100

See “Special Medical Reports” on page 2361.

Because the clinical care and public health systems in the United States must be able to respond rapidly to emerging and reemerging infectious disease threats, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently published a plan, Preventing Emerging Infectious Diseases: A Strategy for the 21st Century,1 which was developed in consultation with many partners and with input from primary care clinicians. The plan addresses four major goals—surveillance and response, applied research, infrastructure and training, and prevention and control—and is designed to foster stronger and more flexible responses to emerging infectious diseases.

Antimicrobial resistance is a major target area in the plan. Approximately 11 percent of invasive pneumococcal isolates in a multiregion surveillance project of the CDC are no longer susceptible to penicillin or third-generation cephalosporins2; resistance to new fluoroquinolones has already been reported (C. Whitney, unpublished data from CDC, 1998). In intensive care units, 28 percent of the bacteria that most frequently cause hospital-acquired infections are resistant to the preferred antibiotic3 (S. Fridkin, unpublished data from CDC, 1998). Reports of community-acquired, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus are increasing,4 and strains of S. aureus with decreased susceptibility to vancomycin have been identified in Japan, Michigan, New Jersey, New York and Europe.57 Resistance has also emerged in pathogens that cause tuberculosis, gonorrhea, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, salmonellosis, candidiasis, malaria and other common infections.8

The CDC and family physicians share common goals that can be of mutual benefit in preventing antimicrobial resistance. As a public health agency, the CDC conducts surveillance of resistance to assist in clinical decision making, new drug development, and targeting of prevention and control measures. The CDC supports applied research to identify the molecular basis of antimicrobial resistance and risk factors for its development and spread, to develop better and rapid diagnostic tests, and to assess the roles of new drugs and vaccines. Infrastructure and training goals include ensuring that clinical laboratories can detect and report resistant pathogens to clinicians and that public health agencies can respond appropriately.

The ultimate goal we share is the prevention and control of antimicrobial resistance. Although specific measures differ for different pathogens, a common theme is that antimicrobial drug use exerts selective pressure favoring resistance. Judicious prescribing of antimicrobials is therefore essential to maximize the life of existing drugs while new drugs are being developed. Infection control is also important in settings that may amplify infection transmission (e.g., health care and child care settings). Simple strategies such as washing one's hands between patients must be reinforced continuously.

Family physicians are on the front lines in the battle against antimicrobial resistance. In caring for patients with a wide range of ages and presenting conditions, they represent the first link in the chain of surveillance and play a critical role in developing and implementing realistic prevention and control recommendations, and educating patients. Public health agencies can assist clinicians by providing surveillance summaries, updated treatment information and educational materials, and by facilitating the development and evaluation of new drugs, vaccines and diagnostic tests.

In respiratory illness seasons, the most important contribution that physicians can make is to limit the prescribing of antimicrobial drugs. The CDC estimates that 50 million unnecessary prescriptions of antibiotics for upper respiratory infections are written annually in the United States, representing enormous selective pressure for resistant bacteria. Unnecessary antibiotic use increases an individual patient's risk of acquiring a drug-resistant infection, not just the community's risk.9

Patients often require an explanation that antimicrobials offer no benefit for their viral illness and may even be harmful. With input from family practitioners and other experts, the CDC has developed clinical aids to save physicians' time in the examining room, including “prescription pads” outlining treatment for viral illnesses and colorful, attractive, easy-to-read educational brochures for the waiting room. One such brochure in Spanish and English is free to family physicians and is available by faxing a request on letterhead to CDC's Division of Bacterial and Mycotic Diseases, National Center for Infectious Diseases (404-639-0817), or by accessing the CDC Web site (

Physicians should also be familiar with the latest diagnostic and therapeutic recommendations (see table). For example, it is now known that purulent rhinitis is part of the natural history of a viral cold. An illness characterized by bronchitis or a cough that lasts fewer than 10 days is usually viral in origin. High-dose amoxicillin (80 to 90 mg per kg per day) is the drug of choice for acute otitis media.10 Antimicrobial therapy for acute otitis media in most patients over two years of age can be stopped after five to seven days, even if asymptomatic effusions have not yet resolved.1113 Educational materials for patients and clinicians can be obtained through the health information page on the CDC Web site (

Prescribe no antibiotics for simple coughs and colds. (Remember that purulent rhinitis is part of the natural history of a viral cold; acute bronchitis/cough illnesses lasting less than 10 days are usually viral.)
Prescribe no antibiotics for viral sore throats; prescribe a penicillin for laboratory-diagnosed group A streptococcal pharyngitis.
Limit antibiotic prescribing for uncomplicated cystitis to three days in otherwise healthy women.
Limit prescribing of antibiotics over the telephone to exceptional cases.
Prescribe amoxicillin as the drug of choice for acute otitis media, but no antibiotics for initial treatment of otitis media with effusion. (In most patients over two years of age, five to seven days of treatment for acute otitis media is enough, even if asymptomatic effusions have not yet resolved.)
Obtain current information and order education materials for patients through the antibiotic resistance page on the Web site of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (

Recent increases in antimicrobial resistance are cause for alarm but not pessimism. Improving prescribing practices and decreasing the spread of antimicrobial resistance can be accomplished.14,15 By forming effective partnerships involving clinicians, public health officials and patients, we can prolong the effectiveness of currently available drugs and reduce the threat of antimicrobial resistance for patients today and for patients of future generations.

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