For a long time the world ignored warnings that antibiotics were becoming ineffective after decades of misuse in human medicine, animal health and agriculture. Now we are racing against time, and if nothing is done, antimicrobial resistance (AMR) might reach 67 per cent by 2030.
The factors that lead to drug resistance have been well-documented and can be explained in simple terms – People abuse medicine by taking it even when it is not required.
Take coming down with flu, for instance. A person might decide to self-medicate with antibiotics for this viral infection. Any disease-causing bacteria in the body is exposed to the antibiotic and since the body did not need this drug in the first place, the germs mutate and when the body actually needs these drugs to kill pathogens, they fail to work.
Worse still, some people don’t complete the dose of antibiotics, even when it is required. Even if you only take antibiotics when required and always complete the dose, antibiotic resistance will still affect you. How so? Kenyans love their meat, but meat products are heavily contaminated with bacteria such as E. coli, with the highest contamination in retail points at low-end markets, where most of us get our meat. Chicken, especially, tends to be high in E.coli.
To make matters worse, poultry and other livestock are reared using antibiotics used in human medicine. Throw E.coli into the mix and we have a huge problem. Chicken and other meat products laced with antibiotics get to the abattoirs or butcheries already contaminated and they are handled in unhygienic conditions.
These chicken with subtle doses of antibiotics will be eaten by people who may get sick from the unhygienic way the meat was handled. When they get to hospital, the drug prescribed to kill the pathogens in their bodies fails to work. Medicines are increasingly losing their power to cure the diseases for which they were manufactured.
If we get to a point where no available antibiotic can kill pathogens, that would be catastrophic.
As you can see, antimicrobial resistance, one of the biggest public health threats today, cannot be left to doctors, researchers and veterinarians to deal with. Each one of us has a big role to play in containing this menace, but this requires intensive awareness campaigns, and that is where the media comes in.
Journalists receive technical information from health professionals and researchers who have studied this phenomenon, and their task is to unpack it in ways that the public can understand. Journalists are the ones who interact with microbiologists like Sam Kariuki, who has on many occasions, sounded the alarm on the effects of antimicrobial resistance, such as prolonged hospitalisation and increased costs of treatment.
Journalists are the ones with ears on the ground at high-level policy discussions at the United Nations. It is therefore paramount that journalists work in tandem with scientists.
Scientists should explain the technical terms to journalists so that they can communicate to the public accurately and in an easy-to-digest form. When this happens, the larger public will modify their behaviour by avoiding abuse of antibiotics.
The challenge is that science journalism is still at its infancy in Kenya, and there are instances when journalists have misrepresented research findings and achieved the opposite of the intended purpose of informing the masses.
Nevertheless, it is encouraging to note that there are reporters and scientists who are collaborating through outfits like the Antimicrobial Resistance Media Network established by the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI). Such initiatives train journalists and link them with globally-acclaimed scientists who have studied AMR in the region. This helps journalists get up-to-date information and relay the same to the public.
Nation Media Group’s health and science desk is a good step in the right direction that other media houses can emulate. Journalists can also leverage digital media by using blogs and social media platforms to share useful information with the public.
Davis Mkoji is the Head of Corporate Affairs at KEMRI