Are Superbugs the New Media Darlings?: Public Health Watch

“60 Minutes” becomes the latest media outlet to cover antibiotic resistance, but are they giving the whole story?

There’s an unwritten rule in news that states, “If it bleeds, it leads.”

It may seem callous—because it is—but readers and viewers are intrigued by violence, particularly if it doesn’t affect them directly. The gorier the story, the more interest it generates. And, like any other businesses, media outlets need to give the people what they want in order to survive.

That is likely at least part of the reason why coverage of “superbugs” has become a mine for ratings and/or readership gold. The New York Times made antibiotic-resistant Candida auris its top story last month in a Sunday edition of the paper. A couple of weeks later, the weekly television program “60 Minutes” ran a segment entitled “Could Antibiotic-Resistant ‘Superbugs’ Become a Bigger Killer Than Cancer?”

The answer to this question, as posed by CBS News reporter Holly Williams, is, of course, “yes,” and we’ve known this for quite some time. People are, in fact, dying from these diseases. Williams cites an Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report released in the fall of 2018—and covered at the time by Contagion®—that estimates the deaths caused by antibiotic-resistant infections could reach 10 million worldwide by 2050.

That’s more than cancer, which was linked with 9.6 million deaths in 2018, per the World Health Organization (WHO).

To Williams’ and “60 Minutes’” credit, the televised report, which first aired on April 21st, begins by telling viewers that the emergence of these deadly infections is caused by the overuse of antibiotics. She cites US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) statistics, which indicate that Americans are, by far, the biggest users of prescription antibiotics in the world. In 2014 alone, US physicians prescribed more than 266 million antibiotic courses, according to the CDC.

Unfortunately, prescription antibiotics are only part—albeit the most significant 1—of the story. The use of so-called “antibacterial” soaps has also been linked with resistance, most notably in a CDC study published in 2005, so much so that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2016 opted to ban products containing any of 19 “antibacterial” compounds. Still, other products labeled “antibacterial” remain on the market and widely available across the country, prompting the FDA to issue a consumer guidance in 2017 that points out that these cleaners are likely to offer little, if any, benefit, in infection prevention.

And yet, Williams and “60 Minutes” spend much of their report focusing on the rise of antibiotic infections in countries such as India and China, showing children in a Delhi hospital sickened by these “superbugs” and being treated by older-line drugs (the only agents to which their infections are susceptible). Although it’s true that people in the developing world are at increased risk for such superbugs, we can’t help but wonder if “60 Minutes” producers felt that footage of sick children made for better television than that of American germaphobes washing their hands.

To be fair, a physician interviewed toward the end of the segment does note that, “There are resistant bacteria that are developed in the United States itself that you are susceptible to. You know, this is a global problem.”

Indeed, it is. And, it seems, it is fast becoming a worldwide media phenomenon.