In 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“.