Recently, I read an article in The Atlantic by Ed Yong, an experienced science writer whom I admire. In this article, Mr. Yong describes a study commissioned by the Wellcome Trust, designed to probe the public’s understanding of drug resistant infections. The conclusions of the study are troubling: the public does not understand the basics about antibiotics. For example, some patients are unaware that antibiotics only kill bacterial infections and request antibiotics to treat colds. Unfortunately, colds are caused by viruses, rendering antibiotics useless. This common source of antibiotic misuse contributes to the rise of drug resistant bacteria.
Compounding the issue is the fact that the language used by scientists and science communicators to talk about antibiotic resistance is imprecise and confusing to the general public. It turns out that even the phrase “antibiotic resistance” is sometimes misunderstood to mean human resistance to antibiotics, not bacterial resistance. To clarify, the Wellcome Trust recommends using “drug resistant infections” instead of “antibiotic resistance.” Though the difference in the language is subtle, changing just that phrase makes the phenomenon of drug resistance much more accessible for those not deeply educated in biology (read: basically everyone).
Mr. Yong concludes the article by quoting a person interviewed for the study on how they would explain the concept of antibiotic resistance:
“Bacteria are getting stronger, antibiotics won’t work anymore, you could die.”
That perfect distillation of drug resistant infections inspired me to create this image:
Edited by Rachel Cohen
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This article was co-published on the TIBBS Bioscience Blog.