Web Zap*Germs Archive

May 20, 2005

Superbugs, Self-interest & Altruism

One of the reasons repeatedly given for the rise of antibiotic-resistant superbugs is people not taking all of their antibiotic prescriptions -- which allows some hardy bacteria to survive and then get passed on to someone else. The problem is how to convince people to finish their full 10 days of meds, when they feel fine at day five.

John Kay argues that instead of appealing to patients' self-interest, drug instructions would be more successful if they appealed, instead, to patients' altruism. People should be instructed to finish the full dose of antibiotics in order that other people -- particularly kids, the elderly, and those with weakened immune systems -- will not suffer.
Economists and biologists used to believe that selfish behaviour was inevitable because natural selection would favour it, but now know that this is not necessarily true. Co-operative behaviour flourishes when it is reciprocated...We give directions to strangers asking the way, expecting that different strangers will do the same for us....I think many people would accept the admonition to complete the course of antibiotics if they understood the reason.

But, as John Maynard Keynes famously observed, practical men are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Patient information leaflets are written...on the theory that now widely underpins both public and business policy: people will respond only to incentives directly aimed at them.

Now, who will give this message to Bono, and get him to tell the world to take all their antibiotics?

[Hat tip: Organic KM]


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