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Communicating (the science of) antimicrobial resistance

Communication is a prime objective in the now global campaign to tackle antimicrobial resistance (AMR). This post argues that more attention is needed to the place of science communication in this campaign and that science stories could be a crucial element in its success.

by Rony Armon

AMR is recognized by scientists and policy makers worldwide as a fundamental threat to public health that calls for immediate response.
The UN general assembly has recently agreed unanimously to take steps to curb the rapid rise of drug resistance. Reported as “the first global effort to stop the spread of dangerous superbugs that are fast becoming immune to many of the most critical medicines” the assembly was able to present the broadest possible consensus, with the pledge agreed upon by all 193 member states. Their heads affirmed a commitment to develop national action plans based on the "Global Action Plan" set by the World Health Organization to coordinate efforts across multiple sectors involved in tackling AMR.

The key and first objective in this plan is to improve awareness and understanding of antimicrobial resistance through public communication programs, schools and professional training. The main goals are to promote behavioural changes - mainly the antibiotics prescription and consumption habits by doctors, patients and farmers, and to promote better understanding and awareness from school age. AMR is seen to be caused by overuse of antibiotics, so if the plan is successful, the result will be a reduction in antibiotic prescribing and use in clinical or agricultural settings.

Communication studies have identified the emergence of risk discourses related to AMR in the media, limited understanding of technical terms by the general public; they have also measured the effectiveness of awareness campaigns and proposed ways by which the media or scholars can help to achieve educational and behavioural goals.

But while strong efforts are invested in alerting the public to the dangers of AMR there is no mention of communicating the scientific efforts of tacking the problem. Researchers have been trying new pathways for the targeting of bacterial virulence, through their environmental sensing and communication, the biofilms that hold them together or their own defence systems. The recent decade saw the growth of social science research with into prescribing and consuming behaviours and how they play out in actual doctor-patient interactions. While increased investment in research is a chief objective in the AMR campaign there are no plans on the table for public engagement with the insights that emerge.

The integration of a scientific component into the public engagement with AMR can support a narrative that conveys hope as well as alarm. Though alarmist messages were found to increase the personal relevance of health messages, societal-level risk perceptions (as in the case of AMR) show a more complex picture. Studies of climate change communication found threat messages to be of limited effectiveness in communicating risk levels or in motivating personal engagement; there are also concerns regarding their effectiveness in communicating AMR. By treating the public as irrational consumers of antibiotic drugs campaigners risk an alienated response. Scientific stories can frame the AMR campaign positively and treat behavioural change as one part of a more comprehensive effort.

As many research paths are now evolving we have an opportunity to communicate AMR research as an ongoing process. With adequate investigative resources and collaboration with researchers and other interested parties we can depict this scientific story as it unfolds. With stakeholders from universities, big pharma and political parties, the story of AMR research can contribute to a better understanding of science as co-produced across interdisciplinary, industrial, and political domains.

Rony Armon is a Research Assistant at the School of Education, Communication and Society at King’s College London. He studies science and health communication in broadcast media interviews with scientific experts. You’re warmly welcome to connect, have a look at his research output and follow his science-in-the-media tweets.