The World’s Penicillin Problem

Late in November 2016 I received news I had been granted generous funding from the European Journalism Centre to investigate an ongoing penicillin shortage affecting multiple countries.

With this project I aim to investigate the causes and consequences of a long worldwide shortage of this essential medicine, especifically the injectable form of the antibiotic Benzathine Penicillin G.

Lack of access to this medicine, listed as an essential drug by the World Health Organization, can have dire consequences as it is the primary treatment for syphilis and for rheumatic fever – illnesses that affect millions of people worldwide.

The stories will look into the supply chain of this medicine to understand what is leading to shortages; into the victims who can’t access this drug; and will examine what are the risks of antibiotic resistance associated with penicillin shortage and misuse of substitute drugs.

The funding will allow me to do fieldwork in a few countries, including India, South Africa, Brazil and England, UK.

I have been lucky to assemble a great coalition of news partners, including Al Jazeera English (international), El Mundo (Spain), Folha de S. Paulo (Brazil), Quartz (international) and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (UK), which have all agreed to run the stories.

While I am the project lead, I will also have the support of Ashley Kirk, data journalist at The Telegraph, who will be assisting me with everything data-related.

This is a longer term news project, expected to be released between March and April 2017. More details about what I will be working on for the next few months can be found here.

Zika is not the only disease plaguing pregnant women in Brazil

Recently I wrote a news story for Quartz about the increasing numbers of syphilis infections among pregnant women and newborns in Brazil.

While the country’s spotlight is on the microcephaly-linked Zika virus, cases of pregnant women and newborn babies suffering from syphilis silently jumped year after year as a shortage in penicillin hits the country.

Both diseases are linked to birth defects, such as severe brain damage and deformities – but press coverage and public investment have been disproportionately targeting the mosquito-borne virus.

Syphilis is currently more deadly than Zika infection – it leads to one in every 10 infected pregnancies ending in either fetal or baby death. In 2013 alone, the disease led to 695 neonatal and infant deaths in Brazil.

“People don’t see syphilis as a serious disease as much as they see HIV and Zika, and we are seeing a comeback of the infection, which is now routinely detected in pregnant women,” says Jorge Senise, infectologist at a health center for women with STIs at Federal University of Sao Paulo.

The full story can be read at Quartz.