Government disease trackers alarmed by the rise of "superbugs" resistant to antibiotics are urging consumers to stop using the drugs to treat ailments (read: viruses) that won't respond to them.

A new print, radio and TV campaign by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) highlights the difference between bacterial infections, such as strep throat, and viruses like the common cold and flu. It reminds us that antibiotics are not only impotent against viruses, but that overuse of them has led to antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

"Antibiotic overuse is a serious problem and a threat to everyone's health," Lauri Hicks, medical director of CDC's Get Smart: Know When Antibiotics Work program, says in a press release. The CDC estimates that tens of millions of antibiotic RXs are written annually in the U.S. for maladies that they cannot treat.

Antibiotic-resistant strains of infections have become increasingly prevalent over the past few years, including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). Some 36 percent of patients in intensive-care units came down with MRSA in 1992, compared with 64 percent in 2003, according to a study in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases.

In the first estimate of invasive MRSA in the general U.S. population, the Journal of the American Medical Association reported last year that more than 94,000 people were infected and nearly 19,000 died from it in 2005. Most of those MRSA infections were contracted in hospitals and other health-care facilities.

Taking an antibiotic when it's not necessary, or using a broad-spectrum antibiotic such as amoxicillin or levofloxacin instead of one tailored to a particular bacterium, increase a person's chances of developing a drug-resistant infection later by killing susceptible bacteria in the body while tougher ones survive. The hearty bacteria may then multiply and change in ways that allow them to resist antibiotics down the road. Failing to take the full course of an antibiotic can produce the same effect.

"We ask parents to not insist on getting antibiotics when a health care provider says they are not needed," Hicks says. "If you have a cold, or the flu, antibiotics won't work for you." Doctors should only prescribe antibiotics for bacterial infections and should select ones that target a patient's specific problem, the CDC says.

Adding to the drug-resistance problem: Animals raised for their meat are routinely fed antibiotics to prevent disease,  a practice that has been linked to increasing the resistance to antibiotics used to attack human staph and gut infections. Europe has barred farmers from giving animals antibiotics unless they're actually sick, and American consumers can now buy meat and dairy products made from antibiotic-free animals. 

Some European and U.S. hospitals are taking steps to reduce the spread of MRSA, among them, requiring all medical personnel to wash their hands between patients and isolating patients at high risk of having MRSA until they are given a clean bill of health.

(Image of MRSA/Public Health Image Library)