The Walking Dead need antivirals, not antibacterials

Diagram of different anti-infective drugsIn October 27th’s episode (“Isolation“) of The Walking Dead, there’s a little viral outbreak at the prison (I’ll leave it at that), and some characters head off to a distant veterinary school with a shopping list of antivirals to find. They even flashed the list, and it had names of actual antiviral drugs (they usually end in “-vir“). That’s all good and fine, and I’m even curious whether the writers will explore the obvious side-effects of taking antivirals (altered susceptibility to zombie bites?).

But here’s the bad part: twice during the episode they said they were in need of antibiotics. By saying “antibiotics,” they implied that antibiotics is another name for antivirals (it isn’t), or that antibiotics have broad efficacy over a lot of different organisms.  Although the word antibiotic used to describe compounds that could kill all life (details), nowadays most people equate antibiotic with antibacterial (any drug that kills bacteria).  And thus the show, watched by over 16 million in just the United States, helped perpetuate a myth that antibacterials can treat infections caused by viruses, like Influenza.  And they did so right at the start of the flu season. Now, even more people than before will ask their physicians for antibacterials when they are sick with virus, and thus further contribute to the evolution of drug-resistant strains of bacteria that end up killing people who actually have bacterial infections (see excellent NYT article).

I think the damage done by that episode is huge and should be addressed somehow by the writers in the coming episodes (or at least on The Talking Dead).  Yes, I’ve tried to contact the show.  And I think the CDC and other health organizations (like the American College of Physicians) should pounce on this issue and issue press releases clarifying that antibacterials do not kill viruses.  These organizations have outreach offices that do this kind of thing, and I’m astonished they’ve been silent so far.  Do doctors and government health officials not watch the show? Is it below them to confront something mentioned on television? Come on, you PR folks, you have press releases, blogs, Facebook pages, and Twitter handles … use them, already!

Of course, it’s totally possible that the writers know exactly what the word means, and simply made their characters expressing ignorance, just to bait people like myself into promoting the show on their blogs.  And then in the next episode they could have the drug-searching team argue about whether Hershel wanted antivirals (on the list) or whether he actually wanted antibacterials.  But my guess is that the writers balked at using “antiviral” for some reason.  They shouldn’t have: it’s not a rare word, and it’s not hard to pronounce. It’s even OK to play the word in Scrabble (yes, I checked). And there’s a movie called Antiviral.  I really can’t wait to find out what happens in next week’s episode (November 3rd).

By the way, if you want to read about why “antibiotics” (the word) is actually the root of much of this public confusion, I have a page on that, too.

If you want to share this page with your doctor friends, and you know you do, hit the Twitter or Facebook buttons below.

UPDATE: In the November 3rd episode (“Indifference“), they found the antibacterials at the veterinary college, saying “get anything that ends in …cin” (or something like that) while grabbing jars from the shelf.  Hershel’s going to be sad. I know he said they could “treat the symptoms,” but because his list had antivirals on it, he probably wanted antivirals.  Antibacterials will certainly be useful against secondary infections, but that’s not what’s killing them … a virus is.

UPDATE2: Just found this, an excellent post by Dr Tara Smith (@aetiology) actual microbiologist: “The microbiology of zombies, part II: ineffective treatments and how not to survive the apocalypse“.

About Colin Purrington

evolutionary biologist, photographer
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11 Responses to The Walking Dead need antivirals, not antibacterials

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  6. Anne Lykke says:

    Re: propagating disinformation.

    Last jan I went to physician for flu test since I had some symptoms. It was negative, but this fellow, not more than 35-40 offered me antibiotics, which I declined because there was no infection to treat. Embarrassed the guy. Seriously he should have been fined.

    • That happens in most cases, I suspect. He might have suggestion antibiotics because that’s what most people want. Or he could be an idiot and somehow pass the Boards without know that antibiotics are antibacterial (to many). I’ve interacted with pediatricians who are a little weak on this, so it could go either way.

  7. Pingback: Shopping list for anti-infectives - Colin Purrington

  8. Dana says:

    They did the same thing with reproductive medicine. There’s a scene in Season 2 where Glenn brings Lori the morning-after pill, and Maggie yells at her about her “abortion pill.”

    1. The morning-after pill prescribed in the United States is a stronger version of the contraceptive pill, not RU-486.

    2. The morning-after pill is only any use in the first 72 hours after unprotected sex; it does not dislodge a pregnancy.

    3. RU-486 can be used in a much smaller dose as a morning-after pill, but at that dose it only prevents ovulation and implantation and as far as I know, it’s not prescribed for that purpose in the United States. And you can only use it as an abortion pill for the first seven weeks of pregnancy, and we have no idea how far along Lori was. My guess, though, is “probably farther along than 7 weeks,” since she’s been stressed out and eating irregularly and probably therefore had irregular periods.

    Didn’t stop the show from using the two terms interchangeably. Like we aren’t confused enough already in this country about reproductive issues. Thanks, AMC.

  9. Jeff says:

    In the Walking Dead people don’t die of the Zombie Virus. They die of infection from injury first. Antibiotics help prevent the infection from killing them. Once they’re dead they come back due to the virus. The show writers know what they’re doing.

    • The whole episode of “Infected” is about a viral infection sweeping through the prison. On the show, the actors hold up a list of drugs they hope to find at nearby stores. This list has several antivirals on it, so somebody Google antivirals. But then the actors start saying “antibiotic”, instead. The mistake is odd because Angela Kang (the writer) worked as intern for at least two medical shows. And even if she didn’t pick up basic biology in college (she was English and Theater major) or on the hospital set, you tend to learn things in life … especially when you have kids that are sick all the time. Anyway, either the writer didn’t know what she was doing, or there was a secondary script writer brought in who was ignorant.

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