CDC'S Lauri Hicks '95 Tackles the Dangers Imposed by the Misuse of Antibiotics

By Marilyn Lewis

Seven decades ago, antibiotics arrived on the market as a life-saving remedy to common infectious diseases. Due to overuse or improper use, however, antibiotics are losing their effectiveness against new bacteria strains. To compel the public — and doctors — to stop using antibiotics without careful consideration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) launched a new Office of Antibiotic Stewardship last year. Lauri Hicks ’95, an expert in antibiotics, bacterial respiratory diseases and outbreak investigations, is at the helm.

Lauri Hicks '95. Photo courtesy of the CDC
Lauri Hicks '95 at the CDC.

“Antibiotic resistance is dialing back the clock on modern medical advances,” Hicks says. Taking antibiotics when they are not needed is fueling an increase in drug-resistant bacteria, causing infections that are more difficult, and sometimes even impossible, to cure. Drug-resistant bacteria infect 2 million people, killing 23,000 each year, according to the CDC.

“I think of antibiotics as a precious resource,” Hicks says. “Every time you use an antibiotic it becomes less effective.” About half of antibiotics taken by people are used incorrectly, she adds. Patients who skip doses, stop midway through treatment or take medicines not prescribed for them risk the development of drug-resistant strains like MRSA, a dangerous staph bacteria.

Hicks’ office reminds doctors to follow hand-washing and infection-control routines scrupulously and to stick to recommended guidelines for diagnosing and treating infections.

In the midst of this winter’s flu and cold season, Hicks offers facts and advice:

  • Antibiotics don’t treat viral infections. (Most sore throats, ear infections, colds and bronchitis come from viruses, against which antibiotics are useless.)
  • Never pressure your provider to prescribe antibiotics.
  • Talk to your provider about what you can do to relieve symptoms.

Hicks’ path to epidemiology led through Bucknell, but she started on a life in science at her family’s 9-acre farm in West Chester, Pa. The thrill of delivering a calf in her early teens at first inspired her to be a veterinarian.

Bucknell, with its strong life-sciences program, was the perfect launching pad for the future U.S. Public Health Services commander, who earned her D.O. at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. She has been with CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service for most of the last 16 years.

It was the desire to heal that led her to medicine, Hicks says, and a career in public health allows her to expand her expertise from helping individual patients to helping whole populations.

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