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Bad journalism: “Antibiotics could kill us before Climate Change…”

Screenshot of Daily Telegraph online headline 1st September 2019 (c) Daily Telegraph

You may have seen this article in the Daily Telegraph on Sunday 1st September with what I think is an incredible, that is, unbelievable headline “Antibiotics could kill us before Climate Change, so why is the world failing to act?”.

I was so distressed by this “paywalled” article that I signed up for a free subscription which gives you one premium article a week, in order to read it.

The gist of the article is actually quite sensible:

  • bacterial resistance to antibiotics is increasing globally (true)
  • the problem is partly from oversubscribing (true)
  • and also from feeding antibiotics to animals to help them put on weight for slaughter (true)
  • new drugs are trickling through the pipeline (true, although there is no mention of the impact on chemical regulations affecting the speed of drug development, which is something I will discuss in another article)
  • new laboratory investigations may find other antibiotics (also true, see comment about new drugs)
  • investment is needed in drug discovery and development (also true, but again ignoring the many barriers to quick drug discovery now in place within the EU)

The article also quotes Dame Sally Davies, the UK’s Chief Medical Officer, who is the source of the quote about antimicrobial resistance killing us before climate change does, as per this article (which does not seem to be paywalled): ; which in turn is based on an “exclusive” interview Dame Sally gave to Sky News at​ .

Why is the UK’s Chief Medical Officer coming up with soundbites about people dying due to antibiotic resistance, particularly due to high levels in animal and fish feed?  Well, the answers are contained in the Sky News Article:

  • This is a pet project of Dame Sally’s in the UK, and she has “been a trailblazer in raising the profile of the threat posed by antimicrobial resistance (AMR)”.​  (Although a cynic would suggest that the EU’s regulation on antibiotics in animal feed may have done the heavy lifting on that one).  
  • Dame Sally is leaving her current role and becoming a “special envoy on antimicrobial resistance”.​  There is no mention of who she is the envoy of in the article.  Well, it’s actually the UK, see

So, leaving on one side the lingering suspicion that a quangocrat has given an interview to Sky News highlighting how good she is at what will become her main job, complete with the obligatory references to “more funding required”, that leaves the problem of the headline in the Daily Telegraph article.

In my view,  the headline, “Antibiotics could kill us before Climate Change, so why is the world failing to act?​” is somewhat misleading.

Firstly, there is a gratuitous reference to Climate Change, and the implication that Climate Change will kill us.

A few pointers here:

  • the earth’s climate is continually changing on short and long term timescales
  • man’s influence on this change is under dispute, despite what the vocal proponents of man made climate change may say (for example, Man Made Climate Change was previously known as Global Warming, but they had to change the name after it turned out there wasn’t any significant warming being observed, in defiance of the dire predictions)
  • climate change will not necessarily kill us as individuals, or indeed human beings as a species – we are incredibly adaptable and ingenious, and to imply that “climate change” will kill us is rather like being one of those street preachers going about proclaiming that the End of the World is Nigh, in fact it’s next Wednesday (which then changes to a different date when the Apocalypse inevitably fails to materialise as predicted)

Secondly, there is the question “why is the world failing to act?​”

This is actually answered in the article.  The world is not failing to act.  For a start, Dame Sally has been appointed as the UK’s special envoy.  We are doing something about it at home, and it seems we intend to do something about it abroad, including considering banning meat products from countries which over-use antibiotics routinely.

Thirdly, and most importantly, there is the assertion that “Antibiotics could kill us”.

This is clearly a bad case of “Chinese Whispers” *, where an original statement mutates into something far removed from its original intentions.

Dame Sally’s original statement, as reported in the Sky News article was “We humans are doing it (microbial antibiotic resistance) to ourselves, but it could kill us before climate change does. It is a very important area and we are under-investing in sorting it out.”

This is correct, in that resistance to antibiotics is entirely the responsibility of humankind.

But the headline in the Daily Telegraph is factually incorrect: it is the bacteria which have become resistant to antibiotics which kill people and animals, not the antibiotics themselves.

Antibiotics very rarely kill human beings, and they do so by causing an allergic reaction to e.g. penicillin and its variants among a very small percentage of people who are sensitive to the active ingredients.  Even an allergic response to antibiotics is not usually fatal.

In my opinion, to suggest in a newspaper headline, and a respectable newspaper to boot, that antibiotics are lethal is not just misleading, it is positively dangerous.

We already have enough numpties who are “anti-vaxxers”, spread in part by the rise of social media, and vulnerable people, particularly children, have died unnecessarily as a result of this ideology, for example 37 people in Europe died of measles in 2018.  Lack of vaccination affects people in the third world the worst, but of course deaths outside one’s own country tend to be under-reported.

It is not difficult to imagine that this headline will be seized upon by the anti-vaxxers and their fellow travellers, (the ignorant, some gaia worshippers, and practitioners of “witchcraft” or “tribal medicine” or “wicca”) who will seize on this headline as evidence that antibiotics are likely to kill an individual, and use this as an excuse not to take them when they should, and to advise others to do the same.  ​(Obviously I’m excluding any pagans etc who do use modern medicine, thanks to my friend Gina for pointing this out 🙂 ).

While people refusing to take antibiotics may seem like an example of the Darwin Awards in action, where a person removes themselves from the gene pool through their own stupidity or recklessness, it is much more serious than that.

These people may be legally and practically responsible for children, the disabled and the elderly.

Will they stop wee Jimmy being treated with antibiotics for an infected cut? and are they prepared to take the consequences when he dies of sepsis?  or will they expect to be able to sue someone for not telling them that might happen?

This click-bait headline is misleading and dangerous, and sloppy journalism as well.  An appropriate headline would have read “Antibiotic resistance – UK takes action”.  But that wouldn’t act as click-bait, and it wouldn’t trade on people’s fears, would it?

I have pointed out this mistake to the Daily Telegraph, (and to the author of the article, who had nothing to do with writing the headline, as you may have anticipated), and have waited to see if they correct it,. After all, there’s no point in just writing an angry article about a mistake and not doing anything to help people realise what’s gone wrong.

1 month later, nothing has happened, although to be fair there is a lot going on politically to keep journalists and sub-editors busy.

But if we don’t start pointing out these kinds of errors, as scientists and engineers, then bad science will propagate even further, bringing the good name of true science into disrepute.

GHS Classification Courses from TT Environmental Ltd

30th September 2019

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*  “Chinese Whispers” doesn’t seem to have a Politically Correct equivalent, although I dare say someone will correct me 🙂

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