One of the great storytelling challenges when it comes to public health issues is relating to audiences. Luckily for writer, producer and director Rick Young, “the FRONTLINE audience is very sophisticated.”
Young was speaking at a special American University screening and panel discussion for the newest PBS FRONTLINE production “Hunting the Nightmare Bacteria,” along with associate producer Emma Schwartz and correspondent David Hoffman. The documentary, a co-production with the Investigative Reporting Workshop, premieres nationwide on PBS, Tuesday, October 22 at 10pm (check local listings).
The program documents the rise of a deadly strain of bacteria, nicknamed “nightmare bacteria” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is resistant to antibiotics and kills half of all infected patients. The problem is considered a “hidden epidemic” in that it will not show up on a death certificate as an official cause of death.
In reality, anti-microbial resistance kills more Americans each year than AIDS. Given that this is a recent phenomenon, the filmmakers hope to fully educate the public about the urgency of this issue and ultimately encourage political action.
The filmmakers approach this public health concern through the very personal stories of U.S. citizens affected by the bacteria. One is about a young girl in need of a lung transplant and another about an amputee who lost his leg as a result of contracting the strain. Rick Young made a very conscious effort to tell the story of anti-microbial resistance from a human angle, so as not to get bogged down in scientific facts.
The panelists also frequently referenced government activity during the Anthrax scare in the early-2000s. According to Hoffman, “An enormous amount of attention and government funding is still given to Anthrax prevention, which was a crisis that resulted in five total deaths. 23,000 people a year are dying from [anti-microbial resistance]. There seems to be a mismatch.”
Young added “one of those letters ended up on the hill,” suggesting that lawmakers would be more willing to address the problem if they feel a direct threat.
The FRONTLINE team has a major message for audiences: this is a public health crisis that that is both personal and global. Citizens from all over the world are cared for in every major United States hospital. The “nightmare bacteria” is a risk for friends, neighbors, and family members in the United States, but also for the global population.