Grad Research: Superbugs and the Outbreak Narrative

Each time the grave threat of a new disease lands upon our shores, media tells the story to the public in more or less the same way: the outbreak narrative.

“They follow the spread of cases and search for patient zero,” says Gabriela Capurro, a PhD communication candidate in Carleton’s School of Journalism and Communication.

“They tell us how experts and doctors are trying to contain it, and finally, how the outbreak ends.”

It makes a convenient, compelling story hook. Each disease has a geographic origin, a place and culture upon which blame can be (and is) assigned.  The heroes of western medicine ward off the threat to our collective well-being. Capurro began researching how the narrative is constructed during her Master’s.

“One of my chapters dealt with how media coverage constructed H1N1 as the ‘Mexican Flu,’” she says. “There were demeaning depictions of Mexico and Mexicans, and that’s part of the outbreak narrative. When we talk about illness and risk, there is always a construction of self and otherness.  It’s a way of defining that we’re safe, free, and healthy. And that ‘others’ are not; that ‘they’ bring their diseases. In the search for patient zero there is always the question of ‘Who caused this?’ and ‘Where did this begin?’ We see it time and again, with H1N1, Zika, SARS. ‘They’ are poor, ‘they’ don’t have a good health system, ‘they’ have improper hygiene.”

So what happens when an outbreak comes from within our borders? From within the very system of medicine we’ve built to protect us?

Antimicrobial resistance is undermining the effectiveness of western medical treatments, and in doing so, it’s flipping the tenets of the outbreak narrative on their head. Bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi can develop resistance to treatments that have been reliable for decades, even longer in some cases.  It can happen anywhere, and it does.

“With antimicrobial resistance there is no patient zero,” Capurro says. “There is no one place it emerged. It’s a global phenomenon, and it spreads silently. Risk isn’t specific to one area – where there’s an outbreak in Ottawa. It’s no longer something that’s only acquired in hospitals. Now, it happens in the community to young, healthy people. The nature of the threat has changed.  It doesn’t spread fast, but now it can happen in a place where there was no case before.”

Read the full story at the Faculty of Graduates and Postdoctoral Studies page.