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Media reports of sepsis deaths ‘make parents pressure GPs for antibiotics’



Emotive newspaper coverage of children who have died from sepsis may put GPs under extra pressure to prescribe antibiotics when the drugs are not clinically necessary, new research has suggested.

Analysis of UK news coverage of childhood sepsis between 1988 and 2018 showed ‘a picture presented to a public audience of a vast and previously unseen death toll’ related to the condition, said the study, published in the British Journal of General Practice.

Researchers looked at 140 articles in 12 newspapers and found stories commonly reported on children who had died after being told they did not require treatment by healthcare professionals.

In addition, previously healthy children were presented in news stories as disproportionately at risk of sepsis, which the researchers said is out of keeping with the known epidemiology of the condition.

Parents were presented as being ‘ultimately responsible’ for ensuring clinicians spot their child’s symptoms of sepsis – and ensuring healthcare professionals did not block access to antibiotics for the condition, said the paper.

There have been national public campaigns to increase awareness of the signs of sepsis, but at the same time there has also been a drive to ensure GPs avoid ununnecessary antibiotic prescribing, in a bid  to cut antibiotic resistance.

The study team noted a widely reported sepsis case in the media, involving one-year-old William Mead, who died of sepsis associated with an untreated streptococcal infection. This was followed by a ‘plethora’ of similar articles.

An NHS England enquiry into the case of William concluded that pressure on GPs to avoid prescribing antibiotics may have contributed to his death, said the researchers. 

This type of narrative has the potential to damage efforts to promote antimicrobial stewardship and increase the likelihood of antimicrobial prescribing that is not clinically justified, the researchers concluded.

Study leader Dr Lynne Rush, a clinical research fellow at the University of Glasgow, said better awareness of sepsis was essential.

But she added: ‘However, media messages about the importance of early treatment with antibiotics in managing sepsis are rarely incorporated warnings about the health risks associated with overuse.

‘Public health communications about sepsis awareness must acknowledge the wider implications of unnecessary antibiotic use as a driver of antimicrobial resistance, and ensure effective treatment for sepsis in the longer term.’

Professor Azeem Majeed, professor of primary care at Imperial College London, said conflicting media messages could cause confusion amongst patients.

He said: ‘On the one hand, there are messages about serious infections such as sepsis and the need to get prompt diagnosis and treatment; and then there are messages about over-use of antibiotics and the threats from antibiotic resistance. 

‘This also creates problems for doctors as the consequences for missing sepsis and other major infections are serious for patients – but at the same time, there is considerable pressure on doctors to prescribe fewer antibiotics.’