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Thin end of the wedge?

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The emergence of extremely drug resistant bacteria could prove to be the first of many.

In the last week, two publications have appeared in the press describing the worrying emergence of bacteria that are resistant to many of the drugs we normally use to treat such infections. A lot has been written in the last few years regarding the threat of antimicrobial resistant infections, but it is clear, the more we look for these infections, the more we find them and the more dynamic the organisms causing them appear to be. Drug resistant infections are a global problem and the movement of people around the world can lead to the dissemination of drug resistant bacteria and both of these reports highlight this as a problem.

The first report was In the USA Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in their ‘Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report’, which was described widely in the press (Daily Mail, The Independent and the BBC Website).

The report indicates that the patient contracted a strain of a bacterium called Klebsiella pneumoniae which resulted in sepsis and death. The bacterium that caused the infection was resistant to all available antibiotics used to treat systemic infections in the USA (26 different drugs), although it was sensitive to an antibiotic called fosfomycin – this drug is not licensed in the USA for delivery via injection into the bloodstream (intravenous delivery). In several countries in Europe (including the UK) fosfomycin is licensed for intravenous use in cases such as this. This is important because we are seeing increasing numbers of drug resistant infections and this is one of the first cases for Klebsiella where no drug options were open to the medical staff. The report also highlights that appropriate infection control measures, such as testing the drug susceptibility of the bacteria causing the infection, isolation of patients and good knowledge of previous medical history, are vital for slowing the spread of drug resistant infections.

The second report in the Daily Mail described a study published in the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that took an innovate approach to trying to understand the spread of a group of bacteria known as carbapenem resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE). The researchers, led by Bill Hanage at the Harvard University Chan School of Public Health, found that CRE are much more widespread, are much more diverse than previously thought and can be transmitted from person-to-person without causing disease – something often referred to as asymptomatic carriage. The researchers used very detailed analysis of the genomes of many bacteria isolated from the Boston area and also in California to come to their conclusions. Significantly, the majority of studies normally focus on treating infections and profiling the bacteria that caused those infections. This study however showed that these bacteria are in the community and tried to characterise the bacteria that are being passed from person to person, without causing disease. This is important as many bacteria are opportunistic, they cause disease in patients that may have other underlying medical conditions. If these opportunistic bacterial infections are drug resistant, then this can present a significant challenge to doctors and how they treat the infection (See the case discussed above). Worryingly, the researchers also identified new kinds of drug resistance in these bacteria, suggesting that there are more antimicrobial resistant bacteria and ways to be resistant out there and yet to be discovered.

Both of these studies were accurately reported in the press and highlight the real danger that antimicrobial resistant infections pose on a global scale. The silent spreading of drug resistant bacteria in the community may also be a bigger problem than previously appreciated suggesting that we need to increase surveillance and be vigilant during outbreaks.

Evidenced based television soap coverage of late miscarriage


We have previously discussed television soap opera coverage of sensitive issues, such as mental health that was addressed in EastEnders last year. In recent days, another soap, Coronation Street, has been covering the highly sensitive issue of late miscarriage.

Long standing actress Kym Marsh, who plays Michelle was seen on Wednesday night’s episode giving birth to a baby who was not breathing at 23 weeks. The programme is to be commended for the evidence-based approach they took to covering this important and rarely discussed issue.

The programme producers researched the issue of late miscarriage by connecting with Sands, the national stillbirth and neonatal death charity, that was established by bereaved parents in 1978. A bereavement support and awareness specialist, Erica Stewart, at Sands, was quoted in the media:

We’re pleased to have been approached by the researchers and writers at Coronation Street for advice and help to ensure that this heart-breaking storyline, that will see character Michelle have a late miscarriage at 23 weeks, is portrayed truthfully and sensitively.

Accurate media coverage of late miscarriage is extremely important. Up to 24 weeks, the loss of a baby is referred to as a miscarriage. Many people experiencing a late miscarriage, and giving birth to a baby as we see in the programme, are unaware of this. It is only from 24 weeks that the loss is classed as a stillbirth. Coronation Street chose to cover the stage of pregnancy that is closest to this timeline raising important awareness about pregnancy loss at this stage.

Miscarriage is extremely common and unfortunately the topic is still very much taboo. Both parents involved in the coverage, Kym Marsh and Simon Gregson, have themselves had personal experience of miscarriage and have spoken in the media about this ‘silenced’ issue. Because of this silence, most women who experience a miscarriage, unless it is a repeated experience, have very little knowledge or awareness of the emotional, physical and procedural issues involved.

Sands are quoted in the media as stating that

We hope that with a TV drama as popular as Coronation Street covering this heart breaking experience, it will help to lift the taboo, and raise awareness of all the issues that surround the death of a baby.

This has clearly been achieved, with coverage that refers to Sands and in many instances provides accurate facts about miscarriage and stillbirth evident in a range of media outlets, including The Telegraph, the BBC, and the Daily Mail.

Screen time guidelines need to be built on evidence not opinion


Children’s use of technology, from iPads to playstations, television and internet exposure, is frequently discussed in the media.  Here at Research the Headlines we have discussed several examples of such media coverage – an example from September 2015 is reblogged below.  It was very welcoming then, to see a letter published in the Guardian last Friday signed by a group of psychologists (which includes 3 of the experts we interviewed in our Talking Headlines series, Dorothy Bishop, Suzi Gage and Kevin Mitchell) and other child development experts raising concern about how screen time guidelines ‘need to be built on evidence and not hype’. This letter was a response to a previous letter published in the Guardian that raised concerns about screen time without drawing on evidence.

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Talking Headlines: John Curtice


John Curtice is Senior Research Fellow at NatCen, Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, and Chief Commentator on the What UK Thinks: EU and What Scotland Thinks websites.  He has been a regular contributor to the British Social Attitudes Report series since 1986 and an editor since 1994. He has also been a Co-Director of the Scottish Social Attitudes survey since its foundation in 1999, and his analyses of Scottish public opinion in the run up to the independence referendum were frequently featured throughout the campaigns. John is a regular media commentator on both British and Scottish politics. He is also President of the British Polling Council. Read more…

Looking Back on Research the Headlines in 2016

Research the Headlines

By most measures, the last 12 months have been epoch-making. From the UK’s decision to Brexit, to the USA’s decision to elect Donald Trump as President, we have seen again and again the importance of the media in shaping and driving public opinion, and the waning importance of fact in our political discourse.

At Research the Headlines, we try to remain as unbiased as possible when evaluating the media’s skill in translating academic research into news stories, and we will continue into 2017. This year, we addressed topics such as ADHD, Tourette’s syndrome, dogs in shelters, how we measure the damage humanity is causing to the natural world, teenage suicide, dementia, asteroids and earthquakes.

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Talking Headlines: Dr Phillip Williamson on the importance of correcting misinformation in the media


Dr Phillip Williamson is an associate fellow at the University of East Anglia, employed by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).  His science coordination work includes programmes on ocean acidification (completed), shelf sea biogeochemistry (ongoing) and greenhouse gas removal (planned), all co-funded by NERC and UK government departments. Misleading reporting on ocean acidification has led to Dr Williamson to become a strong proponent of countering poor reporting and misinformation in the media, as shown by his recent column in Nature.

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Don’t put on the kettle just yet…

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On my Twitter feed, I noticed some scientists complaining about the lack of citation in a recent Guardian column, “The psychology behind a nice cup of tea“, reporting that research finds “hot drinks warm our personalities as well as our bellies”. So I put on my detective cap, fired up Google, and found the original study in about 30 seconds with the search term “holding warm drinks study” (it was number 3 on the list). But because I’m a psychologist and am interested in the recent efforts to increase the replicability of psychological science, I also Googled “holding warm drinks replication”. There I found a pre-registered replication plan, which is a document that details exactly how a team of scientists plan to replicate an existing research finding and how they plan to analyse the results. That way, there can be little leeway to engage in what scientists call researcher degrees of freedom, or changing small things about the analysis until a proposed effect “works”. So how does the original study hold up?

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Sex and spirituality, a new entry to oxytocin magic properties


I have noticed that my last few posts have praised media reporting either in relation to not reacting to articles that had the potential to generate catchy headlines or in working closely with scientists to write accurately about their work.

So I decided to have a look and see if, maybe, the time has come for our blog to be no longer needed. Unfortunately, I did not have to look for too long. All I had to do was to try the always-reliable strategy to type “oxytocin” into Google News and see in which new context or with which miraculous effect this hormone has been involved in the latest research. Oxytocin is a neuropeptide (i.e. a small protein required to transmit information across neurons; see the picture for its formula, also a popular tattoo idea) described to be involved in social bonding, sexual reproduction and childbirth. Because of these functions, it is referred to as the “cuddle hormone” or the “love hormone”. These are types of love, happiness and intelligence that you can buy, as oxytocin is available on Amazon.  You can check out the reviews to see how effective it is.

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Diet Coke WON’T stop you getting diabetes


An article published in Daily Mail on 3rd Nov 2016, reported on the study conducted at Karolinska Institute in Sweden that studied 2,874 adults who had completed a year-long diary about their intake of drinks. They reported that the Karolinska team found that drinking just two glasses of diet drinks a day more than doubles the risk of developing diabetes. Those who had two or more sweetened drinks a day were 2.4 times more likely to develop type 2 diabetes. They went on to say that these drinks included sugary beverages and artificially sweetened ones, such as Diet Coke or sugar free cordials.

Considering that we have been told for years that to cut down calories and lower our risk of diabetes and heart disease we must cut down on sugary drinks, this obviously came as a shock to most of us. So what did the study find?

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Delving into the Living Planet Index: a single metric for a complex problem


Simple, summary statistics are a great way to get people’s attention and demonstrate the seriousness of an issue. However, simple metrics can also mask different trends, be based on biased data and can be misleading if not reported correctly, as we have previously reported in Research the Headlines.

WWF, in collaboration with the Zoological Society for London, recently released their Living Planet Index (LPI): this shows the change in abundance of animal populations over time. The 2016 LPI was based on trend data from 14,152 populations from 3,706 vertebrate species. This is a large dataset and the overall trend is clear and compelling: multiple threats, including habitat loss and degradation, climate change, and direct hunting, contributed to a decline of 58% in animal populations over the last forty years.

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