Close Close Comment Creative Commons Donate Email Add Email Facebook Instagram Mastodon Facebook Messenger Mobile Nav Menu Podcast Print RSS Search Secure Twitter WhatsApp YouTube

SRSLY: This Should Superbug You

Your three-minute read on the best reporting you probably missed.


The best reporting you probably missed

David Epstein

Welcome to SRSLY, an (experimental) newsletter highlighting under-exposed accountability journalism. We’ll distill the important information from investigative reporting you probably missed, and deliver it to you in three-minutes-or-less worth of reading. Sign up to have it delivered to your inbox. (You can, of course, unsubscribe at the first whiff of a bad joke.)

Subscribe to SRSLY

You have the flu. You also have an important deadline coming up, and the slave-driving editor at the non-profit investigative newsroom where you work is breathing down your butterfly collar. You have to get it together, or risk your editor trying to write much more incoherent things into your story to get it done in time. To make the deadline, you pop some penicillin … Ok, joke’s on you, because the flu is a virus, not a bacterial infection, and you just took an antibiotic. (Don’t do that.) But let’s say you had an infection, so you take an antibiotic to get back to work. While you’re convalescing, evolution is happening. A few of the microbes the antibiotic are attacking happen to have some gene mutation that allows them to survive the attack. The surviving enemy microbes spawn a new population, all of which have the gene mutation for laughing in the face of your puny antibiotic. Now multiply that scenario by millions of people taking antibiotics when they probably don’t really need them, and you begin to understand how we’ve created “superbug” infections via the overuse of antibiotics. A new Reuters investigation shows that 15 years after drug-resistant infections were declared a “grave threat,” the situation is far worse, and the country has no system in place to track the tens of thousands of deaths that occur each year. (Editors, however, manage to track exactly how long I, I mean you, procrastinate.) Your five Ws:

What is the death toll?

Great question. Wish someone had an answer. While every state tracks AIDS-related deaths, Reuters reports that only about half track deaths related to antibiotic-resistant infections, and those that do generally track only a few different types of infections. In a survey, the tracking states reported about 3,300 deaths from resistant infections between 2003 and 2014. Meanwhile, Reuters found a slightly higher number recorded on death certificates during that period: 180,000. So close! The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that around 23,000 people die each year from 17 of the most common antibiotic-resistant infections, but, Reuters says, that number is “mostly guesswork.” Ya know, give or take a few tens-of-thousands of deaths. I think this is one of those situations for the ironic use of the phrase, “close enough for government work.”

What else?

The words that CDC officials used with Reuters to describe the agency’s death toll estimate are truly confidence inspiring: “jerry rig,” “ballpark figure,” “a searchlight in the dark attempt;” and, my personal favorite because I love 19th Century art, from Michael Craig, the CDC’s senior adviser for antibiotic resistance coordination and strategy, “an impressionist painting rather than something that is much more technical.” Excuse you, Mike, do you know how much technical skill it took to create Waterloo Bridge, Effect of Fog? … Art before science, I bet Mr. Craig was a star pupil in Miss Jean Brodie’s class.


… are drug-resistant infections often left off of death certificates? According to Reuters: a) Doctors frequently aren’t well-trained in filling out the appropriate forms – or in the importance of doing so – and often don’t wait the few days it would take after a patient passes away for a lab to confirm the infection. b) “Counting deaths is tantamount to documenting your own failures,” exposing a doctor and hospital to risk of legal action and loss of insurance reimbursement.

What can be done?

When bacteria becomes resistant, you have to develop a new drug. That’s why people are dying, until you develop something new, you’re screwed. Right now, doctors typically bombard patients with different existing antibiotics hoping one will blast out the bug – and worrying about when none will.

What is the bright side?

Well, at least the FDA just banned from over-the-counter soaps ingredients that cause bacterial resistance. Antibacterial soap-makers could not provide data to show that any of 19 ingredients they were using were safe and effective.

SRSLY Shortstack

“Gaming.” “Sandbagging.” “Pinning.” Sounds like a wonderful summer birthday party for a third-grader. Except, rather than a 9-year-old’s celebration, these terms come from Wells Fargo’s “Gr-eight initiative,” and correspond to various ways in which the bank was defrauding customers. You probably heard last week that Wells Fargo – aka the world’s largest bank – was fined $185 million (and fired 5,300 employees, aka 2% of all full time staff) for a cornucopia of banking no-no’s. Most notably, Wells employees were opening accounts for customers without telling them, which left unknowing consumers paying fees on accounts they didn’t realize they had. And now some of these employees are speaking out about the pressure they felt from managers to meet quotas. (The “Gr-eight initiative,” by the way, was an effort to make sure every Wells customer was sold at least eight different financial products. Ah, yeah, that does sound like a pretty Gr-f*%&ing terrible initiative.) Employees who spoke with CNNMoney said that “pinning” was the practice of issuing an ATM card and pin number to a customer without their authorization. “Sandbagging” meant refusing to open accounts for customers until later in order to artificially boost sales numbers in the next reporting period. Employees also said that managers told them to open accounts for family members to make quotas. Former Wells Fargo employee Anthony Try told CNNMoney, “There would be days where we would open five checking accounts for friends and family just to go home early.” Hey, that’s what friends are for!

Tweet of the Week

You get what you pay for?

Additional research by Kate Brown.

Tips are appreciated. The paper kind, or the green paper kind.

ProPublica does not vouch for the accuracy of stories appearing on SRSLY. We select, review and summarize key points from accountability stories that may not have gotten wide exposure. But we are not able to independently vet or vouch for the accuracy of stories produced by others. We will inform readers if we learn that stories have been challenged publicly or corrected.

Latest Stories from ProPublica

Current site Current page