Prevent disease spread with education, info

What can patient education managers do to help the public understand and prevent disease transmission? Following are three suggestions from experts on the topic:

1. Provide education on the proper use of antibiotics.

With antibiotics there is a dual problem of overuse and misuse of the drugs, says Paul Doering, MS, professor of pharmacy practice at the College of Pharmacy University of Florida in Gainesville. "People don’t understand that not all health problems can be cured with antibiotics, such as the common cold," he says. While the blame for overuse of antibiotics also lies with physicians, many patients pressure their doctors for medications, or do not take the full dosage. In both cases, the antibiotic may prove ineffective and give the microorganism an opportunity to build resistance to the drug.

Another common problem is patients’ use of one antibiotic for all maladies. "They need to know that they should never take antibiotics that are left over from a previous infection because it may not be the same offending microorganism," says Doering.

New antibiotics currently in development will not solve the problem, says Kate O’Brien, MD, medical epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. "The bacteria are smarter than we are and they will find ways of getting around even newer antibiotics. So the solution is not to keep developing more and more powerful drugs, but to teach people to use antibiotics more judiciously."

2. Target the appropriate patient populations.

Statistics from local health departments offer information on which patient populations need education and screening programs. "If your area has a population that is affected by TB, it would be prudent to talk about infection and disease," says Zachary Taylor, MD, chief of the infection prevention section of the CDC.

There are also settings that are especially vulnerable to the spread of infectious diseases, such as day care centers. The 11 million children in day care facilities are at much greater risk for intestinal infections, respiratory illnesses, and middle ear infections than the population at large, according to statistics tracked by the CDC.

Certain segments of the population such as the homeless, migrant farm workers, and the poor are also more susceptible to infectious diseases. (For more information on developing an outreach program for the underserved in your community, see article, this page.)

It is also important to target certain age groups. One quarter of the 12 million new STD cases each year occur among adolescents, who are at greater risk because they are likely to engage in unprotected sex. Many educational outreach programs on sexually transmitted diseases might be more effective if aimed at high school students, Thompson suggests.

A November report by a committee of the Institute of Medicine on STDs goes so far as to suggest that managed care organizations should provide STD care, rather than refer patients to public health clinics. Were this to happen, patient educators would find themselves having to provide detailed and incisive information about those diseases.

3. Alert people to the need for immunizations.

There are many infectious diseases, such as diphtheria, that are preventable with proper vaccines. However, while much emphasis has been placed on immunizing children, more education must target adults, says Donna Cary, director of public affairs for the vaccine division of Merck & Co. in West Point, PA.

Cary points out that in the United States, 50,000 to 70,000 adults die each year from vaccine-preventable diseases or their complications. That is 100 times as many adults as children. Although hepatitis B virus infects more than 150,000 Americans annually, only about 5% of adolescents and young adults have received the vaccine. One out of every 10 people who contracts diphtheria dies, yet about half of all Americans over 50 years of age are inadequately immunized. Adults should be vaccinated for diphtheria every 10 years.

[Editor’s note: There are several educational pamphlets available from the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. To receive a copy of the publications order form, write: National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, 4733 Bethesda Ave., Suite 750, Bethesda, MD 20814-5228. Telephone: (301) 656-0003. Fax: (301) 907-0878.

The National Foundation for Infectious Diseases publishes a series of fact sheets on adult immunization. These sheets include information on varicella, tetanus, rubella, pneumonia, mumps, measles, influenza, hepatitis A and B, diphtheria, and immunizations in general. An adult immunization schedule is also available. For more information write: The National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, 4733 Bethesda Ave., Suite 750, Bethesda, MD 20814-5228. Telephone: (301) 656-0003. E-mail:]