This morning, over our own morning cups of Joe, my husband and I had the TV tuned to Morning Joe on MSNBC. I normally don’t pay it much attention, as I find Joe Scarborough to be a raging douche most of the time. However, one headline that ran across the news ticker caught my attention:
“Study links antibiotics in pregnancy to asthma.”
That was it. No further explanation, no source, no nothing. I waited to see if perhaps they would do a story on it, but no. Nothing. Instead they were busy with some Guns and Gardens top gift list, and the hosts were getting tipsy on bourbon while playing with duck calls and hand carved axes.
So, I decided to hop on their website to see if it might be featured anywhere. Not on the first page, not under health news, nowhere. Now I was determined, and popped the words “antibiotic” and “pregnancy” into the hated Bing search bar at the top of the page. The fourth article that popped up was the information I was looking for.
After reading the study, I came to find that it was a study conducted in Denmark, which was cited in a Reuters article and is quoted as follows: “The results don’t prove that antibiotics caused the higher asthma risk, but they support a current theory that the body’s own ‘friendly’ bacteria have a role in whether a child develops asthma, and antibiotics can disrupt those beneficial bugs.”
Now, to a non-medical person, that’s a huge difference than what was put out on the ticker. Although I’m not a doctor, nor a statistician, I did find that the study was done using a retrospective review of births from 1997 to 2003 and followed the children for five years. Generously, the last child would have finished their follow up in 2008. Why was this information just reaching the masses four years later?
The article goes on to say: “They found that about 7,300 of the children, or nearly one quarter, were exposed to antibiotics while their mothers were pregnant. Among them, just over three percent, 238 children, were hospitalized for asthma by age five.” Only 3%? Really? This number doesn’t seem that significant to me. Then the next paragraph cites “that by contrast, about 2.5 percent, or 581 of some 23,000 children whose mothers didn’t take antibiotics, were hospitalized with asthma.”
But, since a .5% difference doesn’t seem all that impressive, we must “add controls” for other “risk factors” which gives the far more impressive at risk percentage of “the children who had been exposed to antibiotics were 17 percent more likely to be hospitalized for asthma.” Looking at another, much smaller cohort of 411 children found a 50% increased risk, which is probably what got them published in the end.
Finally, at the end of the article, they give you reasons why this information might not give you the whole story, such as the reason the antibiotic was prescribed to begin with (because the illness may be the cause, not the treatment). Also, it doesn’t specify which antibiotics were used in the search. Even I know that certain antibiotics are safer for mothers to use during pregnancy and others are not.
So, the tiny ticker headline loaded with fear-mongering innuendo manages to give the knee-jerk reaction, with nothing of substance to follow it up. It is irresponsible for the news organization to present information in such a way, considering what a hot topic antibiotic use is these days. Of course, we are seeing much more attention paid to the overuse of antibiotics with resistant infections on the rise. It is possible in the four years since the data collection for this study has been completed that most American hospitals have been reexamining and revising their policy on prescribing antibiotics. I know the one I work for certainly has. But, that’s not as attention grabbing I guess.
What is more frightening is that a pregnant woman may decline a prescription for a potentially life-threatening infection for her or her baby based on this information. While women are certainly free to do so, the likelihood that her fetus could be permanently disabled or die is much higher if her decision is based solely on the fear tactic used in this kind of 2 second headline grabbing news delivery. I’ve seen plenty of people make really bad health choices based on simply inaccurate information that’s posted on the web or put out by the afternoon television health pseudo-experts. Sometimes, this type of information is all that’s needed to tip the scale.
And, a few minutes after the bourbon segment was over, I saw the headline again. Right around the time that Joe was heckling his cohost for being buzzed at 7:45 in the morning while she was trying to toss to commercial. I just shook my head and turned away. Clearly, their priorities were elsewhere.