Tips for covering the latest news about antimicrobial resistance

Bara Vaida

About Bara Vaida

Bara Vaida (@barav) is AHCJ's core topic leader on infectious diseases. An independent journalist, she has written extensively about health policy and infectious diseases. Her work has appeared in outlets that include the National Journal, Agence France-Presse, Bloomberg News, McClatchy News Service, MSNBC, NPR, Politico and The Washington Post.

Drug resistant pseudomonas aeruginosa

Photo: CDCDrug resistant pseudomonas aeruginosa

The danger of antibiotic resistance became clearer in November with the release of new figures showing that antibiotic resistance is among the top ten causes of mortality in the U.S.

This information is a news hook for all kinds of follow-up stories, from examining the effectiveness of local hospital antibiotic stewardship programs, to parenting articles on the potential dangers of antibiotics to children as we enter the winter season.

On Nov. 13, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that at least 2.8 million antimicrobial resistant infections are sickening Americans each year and 35,000 die. In addition, another 220,000 people develop illness from Clostridium difficile [C. diff], and 12,000 die from it.

C. diff is a bacteria that can thrive because of the overuse of antibiotics and can cause life-threatening inflammation of the colon.

Adding together the figures, more than 3 million are getting sick from resistant pathogens and 48,000 die, which puts antimicrobial resistance on the list of top 10 causes of death, just above suicides. In 2013, the CDC had estimated that 2 million people were sickened by resistant bugs and 23,000 died annually.

The CDC says its figures are a conservative estimate and some researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine estimated deaths may be closer to 162,044 deaths a year, which would make it the fourth biggest cause of death, after heart disease, cancer and accidents.

“I think the true number is somewhere between Washington University and this new [CDC] number,” says Greg Frank, director of infectious disease policy at the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, which represents companies involved in antibiotics and slowing antimicrobial resistance.

Potential story ideas

To help reporters with follow-up stories to the CDC report, the Infectious Diseases Society of America, a nonprofit that represents infectious disease health providers, has a set of stories highlighting patients impacted by antimicrobial resistance.

“The CDC numbers are important, but people are moved by real stories, so the more reporters can do to put a face on this complicated story” the more impact there will be in helping the public under antimicrobial resistance, says Amanda Jezek, IDSA’s senior vice president for public policy and government relations.

Reporters interested in writing about patient safety and hospital stewardship can look into what their local hospitals are doing about a new requirement by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. CMS says that any hospital that cares for Medicare patients must adhere to all of the CDC’s elements for stewardship, which include hospital leadership and interventions to prevent inappropriate prescribing of antibiotics.

As of September 2019, 76.4% of the nation’s acute care hospitals said they adhered to all of the requirements, but many small and rural hospitals didn’t have a stewardship program at all.

“There’s definitely still more work that needs to be done,” David Hyun, M.D., senior office with the Pew Charitable Trusts antibiotic resistance project, told the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.

Antibiotics and children

For those looking for a parenting angle about antibiotic prescribing, a 2018 study in the journal Pediatric Infectious Diseases Society, found that about 70,000 children are taken to the emergency department each year due to an adverse reaction to antibiotics. Most of the visits were due to an allergic reaction to the medication, and a smaller number were attributed to gastrointestinal illness and other negative reactions, the study said.

“For small children [antibiotics] can be one of the leading causes for emergency room visits related to adverse events,” said Michael Craig, coordinator of the CDC’s antibiotic resistance activities.

Craig added that when parents take their children to a doctor, they should “never ask for an antibiotic” but rather what might make their child feel better.

“Antibiotics sometimes have very bad side effects,” he said.

For further resources, see our updated tip sheet on covering antimicrobial resistance here.

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