Elle hasn’t been a particularly sickly kid in her two years. In fact, aside from the standard bugs she’s battled commendably in the past, she’s been pretty healthy. That was, until this winter.
Between this winter’s respiratory viruses, stomach bugs, ear infections, and the cutting of her two-year molars on top of it all, we’ve barely had a chance to get our heads above the sea of crumpled tissues and half-used medicine bottles for a breather. It has seemed like as soon as she’s finally finished with one sickness, emerging from the yawning depths of the living room couch to return to the “real world” of day care and play dates, she is once again sent spiraling back to the murky pits of illness characterized by eternal clinginess and everlasting nasal mucus.
I realize I sound as whiney as my sick two-year-old, complaining about this winter’s string of ailments that has virtually flipped our household on its snot-packed head. I should be thankful that our daughter has never been truly sick – and believe me, after the last few months of her being just moderately sick, I do indeed count our lucky stars that our kid was born and has remained healthy, comparatively speaking. A couple viruses, stomach bugs and ear infections are in the greater realm “not a big problem,” as Elle would say.
And yet I can’t stop myself from grumbling about the health insurance deductibles and co-pays, missed days of work and day care, and most notably, the frequent expression of discomfort reflected in my poor toddler’s red-rimmed eyes. Riding the sick train for as long as we have this winter has also brought to the forefront a timeless conundrum –when do you bring your kid to the doctor, and when do you just try to ride out the sickness? Also, when do you medicate, and when do you let nature take care of it?
I can honestly say that I hate taking a trip to the doctor’s office, simply to be told that yes, my kid is sick and no, there’s nothing the doc or I can really do about it. It’s not as if I want the doctor to hand me a prescription every time I walk through the door – I just want him or her to tell me there’s something I can do to make her feel better. Sometimes, time is ultimately the only cure. In our busy lifestyles, taking more time for a kid to heal seems like a lot to ask, especially when you want your kid to be better NOW!
Our culture’s impatience with sickness seems to be the source of our growing love/hate relationship with medicine.
Mothers of young kids today are by and large wary of giving their kids antibiotics at every whim, and for good reason. Research has shown that antibiotic-resistant “super bugs” are on the rise, and this trend is linked to the overuse of antibiotics in the population.
Since penicillin became widely available more than 60 years ago, bacterial infections changed from life-threatening scourges to completely treatable conditions. Over the decades, however, we may have loved our antibiotics too much. The over-prescription of antibiotics leading to dangerous drug-resistant bacterial infections has been deemed a “public health crisis” by the CDC, and for that reason general practitioners have in recent years subscribed to new medical guidelines when treating patients – guidelines that dictate a reduction in the number of antibiotics prescriptions they hand out.
When mothers my age were toddlers, a trip to the doctor’s office for an ear infection would in almost all cases lead to a course of antibiotics. Nowadays doctors are much more selective in the patients to whom they give a prescription; an ear infection, in other words, will not always warrant medication.
What is interesting, however, is that antibiotic use in humans isn’t the leading source of the drug-resistant super bug problem, at least according to some sources. The website for the group Keep Antibiotics Working cites a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists that estimates that 70 percent of all antibiotics in the U.S. are used as feed additives for animals that eventually land on Americans’ dinner plates. The routine use of antibiotics as feed additives for livestock and poultry is not to treat disease, but instead to promote growth and to compensate for crowded, stressful, unsanitary conditions.
The poultry industry, for example, routinely used an antibiotic almost exactly like the human antibiotic Cipro, causing widespread concern that the human population eating that chicken would be exposed to low doses of the antibiotic and, over time, become “immune” to the drug’s benefits. The FDA ultimately banned the use of that drug in chickens in 2005. Other antibiotic drugs are still routinely used in conventionally raised poultry and other livestock, however.
Concern over drug resistance prompted a Danish ban on antibiotic use for growth promotion in animals over a decade ago. The Pew Environment Group has said that the Danish ban had little or no effect on farm productivity, while it did lead to a decrease in antibiotic resistance. The American Veterinary Medical Association, meanwhile, said Denmark's voluntary ban on the use of antibiotics for growth promotion "has not resulted in a significant reduction of antibiotic resistance in humans" while disease and death in hogs has increased.
Opposing interests are obviously at play in the issue of routine feeding of antibiotics in animals for growth promotion and, ultimately, reduction in cost for raising animals under the conventional methodology. It seems clear to me, however, that if my doctor is wary about giving my daughter a dose of antibiotics when she has a painful ear infection, the American food industry should also think twice about routinely dosing animals with drugs when they’re not absolutely necessary.