A simple dose of antibiotics: sepsis reporting in UK newspapers

Published 22 January 2020

New research from the SPHSU has found that the media presents deaths from sepsis as easily avoidable by prescribing antibiotics, without acknowledging the health risks associated with their overuse.

A recent drive to improve sepsis awareness has been accompanied by prolific media reporting about its management in children.

The study examined UK newspaper representations of sepsis in children; 140 articles about sepsis published in 12 UK newspapers between 1988 and 2018 were analysed.

Researchers aimed to better understand how the messages conveyed in the press may impact on parents' consulting behaviour and expectations about antimicrobial prescribing.

Reporting of sepsis was characterised by emotive personal stories about affected children who have suffered death or disability. The cases were frequently presented as resulting from failings within the healthcare system that could have been avoided by early treatment.

Health professionals were portrayed as inadequately prepared to recognise and manage sepsis and as reluctant to prescribe antibiotics, even when necessary.

Parents were positioned as advocates for their children who are ultimately responsible for ensuring that they receive appropriate treatment and failure to do so was depicted as having potentially tragic consequences. For example, for the parents of William Mead, who died from sepsis at the age of 13 months “knowing that a simple course of antibiotics could have saved him is something his parents will have to live with for the rest of their lives.” (Daily Mail 27 October 2016) 

Better awareness of sepsis is essential to ensure better recognition and improve outcomes. However, media messages about the importance of early treatment with antibiotics in managing sepsis rarely incorporated warnings about the health risks associated with overuse.

A simple dose of antibiotics: qualitative analysis of sepsis reporting in UK newspapers is published in the British Journal of General Practice Open.

First published: 22 January 2020

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