Potential Role of Social Media in Combatting Antimicrobial Resistance

By Janet Marroquin

Experts from around the world have been sounding the alarm on the rise of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) for years, declaring that with the current trend, previously preventable diseases will claim up to 10 million deaths annually by 2050.  As governments and international agencies take heed and create formal strategies to combat AMR, audiences outside of biology and medicine are starting to join in the conversation.  NowThis, a popular video-based news outlet on social media, released a 90-second video dedicated to a “post-antibiotic apocalypse” on October 17th. In addition to introducing the rising trend of antimicrobial resistance, the video touches on stewardship, international efforts (or lack thereof) against AMR, and “phone apps that…could be a game changer.”  The video is formatted as more of a fact-listing slideshow than a traditional news article and the data presented provides the viewer with a fair snapshot of the current AMR threat.

In this era of fake news, the credibility of articles circulating on social media can be dubious, particularly when citations are not readily available. Further investigation of the statistical data used in the video yielded mixed results. The widely circulated figure of 10 million deaths from previously preventable diseases per year by 2050 stemmed from the Review of Antimicrobial Resistance, a 2014 report published by a team of AMR experts at the request of then UK Prime Minister David Cameron. Since the publication of this report, this figure has been used by other experts, policy-makers, and news media to shed light on the extent of the current AMR threat. Such a strong prediction however, is bound to be met by skepticism. A PLOS article called into question the ability of scientists to realistically forecast the global impact of AMR in the decades to come. According to the article, the 10 millions annual deaths figure is erroneously used without the stated caveats and contextual informationwould reinforce its credibility. De Kraker, Stewardson, and Harbarth explain that the projections leading to the figure were based on four hypothetical scenarios that do not take into account disparities in public health across countries with varying degrees of economic status and urban development and that would likely affect the international impact of AMR in 2050. The authors conclude with the acknowledgement that current forecasting methods are still limited and calls for further research to develop improved models to estimate the anticipated global morbidity and mortality burden if AMR is left unchecked.

The video also stated that 85% of countries have started action plans to combat AMR, but only 5% have financed these plans. This data is most likely taken from a May 2017 WHO estimate that about 2/3 of member countries, in which 85% of world’s population resides, had completed or were in the process of developing their national action plans against AMR, a request set forth by the WHO Global Action Plan issued in 2015. It may be important to note the percentage of countries combating AMR rather than the proportion of the global population that they inhabit as many of the remaining countries without action plans have fragile infrastructures that cannot support AMR efforts, thus illustrating the need for the international community to join forces in a globalized effort to fight antibiotic resistance.

Although the dissection of the data used in the NowThis video revealed a few inconsistencies, the attention that a 90-second video can bring to various aspects of AMR to the general public is significant.  As of November 6, 2017, the video has had 2.1M views and has been shared by 12,333 users on Facebook, retweeted by 175 users on Twitter, and has been featured on news sites. Interestingly, a few days after the release of the NowThis video, NBC News MACH published an online news article addressing the “post-antibiotic apocalypse.” The article described the development of alternatives to antibiotics such as bacteriocins, bacteriophages, pathogen genotyping, and addressing the need to combat AMR through novel drug development in light of the current antibiotic drought precipitating antibiotic resistance. In another instance of social media being used to in the fight against AMR, antimicrobial stewardship programs have used Facebook and Twitter to increase awareness of AMR amongst internal medicine residents.  In case anyone else is interested in joining the Facebook and Twitter AMR campaigns, the CDC has even provided sample posts and messages to help spread the word. The power of social media is just beginning to be harnessed to raise awareness and promote healthy habits and antibiotic stewardship on a personal level.

Janet Marroquin is a first-year graduate student in the GMU Biodefense MS program.  Janet graduated from the George Washington University with a Bachelor of Arts in Speech and Hearing Sciences with a premedical concentration.  Her research interests include antimicrobial resistance, drug innovation program analysis, and infectious diseases.  Janet hopes to use her medical interests to focus on emerging infectious disease preparedness in global health security.

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