Superbugs Equal Super Headlines for the Media: Public Health Watch Report


Incidence of superbug infections are certainly keeping the media in business, but is all the attention translating into an increased awareness of the importance of antibiotic stewardship?

One thing you can always say about the blaring headlines in the mainstream press predicting impending “superbugs:” They are never dull.

Take for example the story entitled “Antibiotic-Resistant Genes Found in Parks…” published on May 30, 2017 by a newspaper called the L.A. Canyon News—the paper’s slogan: “We print the truth… can you handle it?”—which described research performed at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). The study in question, released by the journal ACS Omega, found that 24 parks in California (in 4 cities: Los Angeles, San Diego, Bakersfield, and Fresno) had, according to the Canyon News report, “high levels of a gene that resists sulphadimidine,” an old-line antibacterial drug.

The article does note that the genes are, in and of themselves, not harmful, and that they may occur “naturally” in the environment. Still, you have to wonder how many parents in the affected cities took junior to the park the day the article came out.

Earlier in May, on May 8, 2017 to be exact, NBC Chicago reported on a “dangerous, untreatable superbug” that is “on the rise.” The station’s story was based on the World Health Organization’s (WHO) first-ever drug-resistant bacteria list, which was issued in February—meaning, the news division at NBC Chicago felt that this “superbug” was so dangerous that residents of the Windy City did not need to know about it for a full 3 months. The bug— carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae, which topped the WHO list—is, obviously, hardly a new threat, although there may be a new media-fueled panic near you sometime soon.

It should go without saying that WHO released its list earlier this year to educate the public—not scare them—and to push clinicians away from the all-too-common practice of “overprescribing” certain antibiotics, which of course confers resistance. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) made similar outreach efforts. But, WHO took its campaign a step farther on June 6, 2017 when, according to the Washington Post, it recommended that certain so-called “last-resort” antibiotics be held in reserve to fight potential superbugs as they emerge. Drugs on this special list include colistin and “some cephalosporins.” The guidelines were part of WHO’s Model Lists of Essential Medicines, a report that is updated every 2 years.

Given that drug sales effectively drive drug development it will be interesting to see how the pharmaceutical industry responds to this recommendation.

Thankfully, we may have a new “magical” antibiotic before we get to find out. The Guardian seized upon that word, “magical,” which was used by the researcher-authors of a study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in its description of findings regarding an amped up (our phrase) version of vancomycin. The magicians, er, researchers from The Scripps Research Institute modified the 60-year-old antibiotic so that it effectively attacks bacteria in 3 distinct ways, making it harder for said bacteria to develop resistance to it. The new-old drug is reportedly 1,000 times stronger than the original, and is effective against both Enterococci and vancomycin-resistant Enterococci, the latter of which is also cited in the WHO drug-resistant bacteria list.

Unfortunately, the drug is at least 5 years away from coming to market, as it has yet to be tested on animals or humans, according to a report by the BBC.

Which means we have at least 5 more years of scary “superbug” headlines to look forward to—and all too little focus on the importance of stewardship. We’re not sure we can handle it.

Brian P. Dunleavy is a medical writer and editor based in New York. His work has appeared in numerous healthcare-related publications. He is the former editor of Infectious Disease Special Edition.

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