At Wellcome, we’ve been looking at how we communicate about drug-resistant infections. We haven’t always got it right and, at a time when public understanding and awareness of this issue is low, this is important. It’s crucial that we all, as a community of advocates, practitioners and policy makers in this space, use the most effective language and frames to help the public understand this huge challenge and support action on it.
Our Reframing Resistance report describes five evidence-based principles for communicating effectively about drug-resistant infections. These range from framing the issue as undermining modern medicine, to showing it’s solvable and encouraging action.
Our research showed people are more likely to engage with the topic if they understand the basics – the issue is explained succinctly, in an informative tone – and understand its impact – that it’s a universal problem, which can affect anyone.
Here are some examples of how we put these principles into practice.
Example 1: facts vs stories
What's at stake
Without action now, the number of people dying each year from drug-resistant infections will rise from 700,000 to 10 million by 2050.
Of every 100 hospitalised patients, seven in high-income and ten in low- and middle-income countries will develop at least one healthcare-associated infection.
Since Alexander Fleming’s famous Penicillium discovery in 1928, nearly all antibiotics have been variations on existing drugs. There has been no new class to treat the most dangerous Gram-negative bacteria since 1962.
Stories of drug-resistant infections
Surviving a car accident aged 25 was just the start of Vanessa’s journey. A drug-resistant infection following multiple surgeries inspired her campaigning in South Africa and beyond.
As a doctor in Cambodia, Miliya lost many patients to drug-resistant infections. He’s now leading antibiotic stewardship initiatives in his hospital to prevent the rise of infections.
Greg needed antibiotics for three years following a post-surgery infection. Motivated by his experience, he started a PhD to study how drug resistance spreads.
How we changed it:
- To make a compelling case that drug-resistant infections are a huge problem today, we decided to use stories of people, rather than numbers and stats.
- Projections about future impact don’t get across a sense of urgency. What people relate to is human stories. Showing the human impact of drug-resistant infections makes the issue more relatable and tangible, and this increases support for action.
Example 2: tweet
According to @WHO there are more than 1m new STI cases globally each day. But what does this mean for drug-resistant infections?
Read what Tim Jinks, the head of our AMR programme had to say on why this news is incredibly troubling as we work to #StopSuperbugs
There are more than 1mill STI cases globally each day, according to @WHO. We’ve relied on antibiotics to treat common infections like these. But with the rise of drug-resistant infections, STIs too are becoming harder or impossible to treat.
@wellcometrust’s Tim Jinks says this is troubling news, but we can #stopsuperbugs. Here’s how.
How we changed it:
- The original tweet didn’t reveal why the rise of STIs is a problem. Instead, it asked the reader what that might mean. We rewrote the tweet to make it more explicit. We introduced the undermining modern medicine framing by showing that STIs are only one of the common infections affected by drug resistance.
- The call to action was also vague – reading what someone has to say about the issue, after revealing that the news was incredibly troubling, doesn’t encourage the audience to engage. Stating that we can solve the problem – and showing how we can do that – encourages readers to care about the issue, rather than dismiss it as intractable.
- Does your content lead with drug-resistant infections undermining modern medicine (evidenced with multiple examples of procedures, diseases and illnesses, tailored to your target audience)?
- Do you include a simple explanation of what drug-resistant infections are (outlining that bacteria – rather than individuals – become resistant)?
- Have you communicated the human face of drug-resistant infections?
- Do you emphasise the impact of drug-resistant infections here and now?
- Do you have a clear call to action?
Example 3: explainer copy
Drugs like antibiotics are a vital tool for modern medicine, used to prevent and treat infections.
Without effective antibiotics, common infections that can be easily treated now – such as gonorrhoea and urinary tract infections – could become untreatable or need lengthy hospital stays.
Everyday medical interventions, such as chemotherapy, organ transplants and other surgeries, would be less safe to perform due to infection risk.
Childbirth could also become riskier, as it would be more difficult to control infections around the time of birth. This is already a huge problem today in countries like India, Pakistan and Nigeria, where thousands of newborns die every year because of sepsis that is resistant to antibiotics.
As drug resistance spreads, many medical advances from the past decades will be lost.
Drugs like antibiotics are a vital tool for modern medicine, used to prevent and treat infections. As drug-resistant infections are becoming more common, modern medicine as we know it is at risk.
Without effective antibiotics, common infections that were once easily treatable – such as gonorrhoea and urinary tract infections – are becoming untreatable or need lengthy hospital stays.
Routine medical interventions, such as chemotherapy, organ transplants and other surgeries, are becoming less safe because of the infection risk.
Childbirth is also becoming riskier, as without working antibiotics it’s more difficult to control infections around the time of birth. This is already a huge problem in countries like India, Pakistan and Nigeria, where thousands of newborn babies die every year because of sepsis that is resistant to antibiotics.
How we changed it:
- We strengthened the idea of undermining modern medicine by bringing it forward, instead of relying on the final sentence to do that job. Leading with the strongest message ensures your audience knows from the start what you’re trying to communicate.
- It then becomes easier to support your main message with examples – which, in this case, we had (common infections, chemotherapy, organ transplants). To show the scale and breadth of drug-resistant infections, it’s important to always use multiple examples of treatments and diseases that are and could be affected. This also increases the chances of personal relevance, as your audience might relate to one of the examples given.
- But we presented these examples as future possibilities, ie could become untreatable. Drug-resistant infections are a current problem now, so use present tense to emphasise that, ie are becoming untreatable.
Have you used these recommendations?
We’re keen to hear about your experience of using the Reframing Resistance report and toolkit. Send us your examples and any ideas on what tools or resources would be useful for you.
Let us know at DrugResistantInfections@wellcome.org.