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Taking Animal Medicines Sounds Fishy

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

ALEXANDRIA, Va., Aug. 6, 2002 – It sounds like a "well, duh" statement, but fish antibiotics are not meant for people.

A Pentagon medical facility doctor sent a letter recently to the New England Journal of Medicine detailing a case of a Special Forces soldier treating a sinus infection with over-the-counter antibiotics meant for fish.

This is a dangerous practice, said Dr. David Tornberg, deputy assistant defense secretary for clinical programs and policy. Pet antibiotics are simply not made for humans, and their indiscriminate use may cause health problems for individuals.

Human antibiotics require a doctor's prescription. Antibiotics for most pets require a veterinarian's prescription -- except those for fish, because of a legal loophole.

Self-diagnosing is at the heart of this problem.

"If an individual is treated for a health condition at one time and has similar symptoms at a later date, he may decide on his own that he understands what the diagnosis is … and (he) just follows the pathway he was down before," Tornberg said.

Rather than go to a doctor and get a proper diagnosis and treatment, the person buys fish antibiotics from a pet store or from an online shopping site, and down the hatch they go.

But there are many dangers to this. First and foremost, the self-diagnosis may be wrong. Many diseases start with the same symptoms. Tornberg said that most upper respiratory problems, for example, have the same symptoms. But many of the diseases are viruses and don't respond to antibiotics. "In fact, taking an antibiotic can complicate the course of that event," he said.

Second is the danger of an allergic reaction, which can range from a mild rash to sudden death.

The misuse or long-term use of antibiotics can create antibiotic resistance. "We have organisms that no longer respond to antibiotics," he said. "We're creating a much larger problem for the population at large if we introduce antibiotic resistance into a bacterial colony."

He said prolonged use of antibiotics could change the natural bacterial lining of your stomach and gut. "You can get an overgrowth of an organism that can be quite harmful," he said. "Yeast is one of those organisms, and you can get quite sick from taking antibiotics."

Finally, there is the perception that both animals and humans are treated with the same antibiotic. While this may be true of the chemical compounds in the pill, the strength of the dose and the frequency that the dose must be taken may not be the same.

"Components in the (animal) pills may be very different from the human form and may interrupt the absorption of that antibiotic in the gut or stomach," Tornberg said. "Consequently, the individual may not be getting the dose he thinks he's getting."

Tornberg said he doesn't think the problem is widespread in the military. He said the Defense Department has contacted the Food and Drug Administration about the abuse and has launched an education effort to teach service members the dangers of self-diagnosis and self-medication.

DoD has a world-class medical service, Tornberg said. "They should use it."

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