So this evening I went to Royal Society of Biology seminar called ‘Battling Infection’ at my university. It was a three-hour long discussion between a panel of five scientists (of varying disciplines), with the audience contributing questions. It was an incredibly good evening and a lot of excellent points were raised about infectious diseases, antibiotic resistance etc. Most points discussed weren’t new to me, but it was good to hear various experts’ opinions on them. I’m going to summarise some of the topics covered, because I think it’s knowledge everyone should have and I think they’re important debates everyone should know about. First though, I’m going to cover the basics of antibiotic resistance.
So, what is antibiotic resistance? It is when bacteria, most commonly ones that infect humans, become resistant to antibiotic medicines, i.e. the antibiotics become ineffective because they no longer have an effect on the bacteria they’re supposed to kill. Antibiotic resistance in bacteria occurs because the bacteria acquire genetic mutations that make them resistant. A typical bacterial turnover rate (the rate at which they multiply) is every 20 minutes. So, if you have two bacteria, after twenty minutes there’ll be four, and after another twenty minutes there’ll be eight etc. So you can end up with a lot of bacteria in a very short space of time. Now, since their turnover rate is so high, they develop genetic mutations at a very high rate. So the chance of a bacterium developing a mutation that makes it resistant to a certain antibiotic is high. So basically, the problem is that there’s an increasing number of infectious bacteria world-wide that have these mutations and which are resistant to antibiotics.
The first topic discussed was that of antibiotic resistance. It was said how in the USA alone, 80% of antibiotics are used in animal feed, to make animals larger, with more muscle etc. It was said how people who have a common cold or another type of virus go to their GPs and demand antibiotics and although the antibiotics are of course going to have no effect, a lot of patients don’t understand this, so GPs just give them antibiotics to get them off their backs. These are very serious problems, because the more antibiotics that are given, the more bacteria are exposed to them and so bacteria are more likely to develop resistance to them. It was discussed how antibiotics should be used appropriately (i.e. only given to humans who are in genuine need of them). The issue of patients demanding antibiotics for non-bacteria-related illnesses then sparked a discussion about public education…
It is the people who demand antibiotics for non-bacterial infections who pose a problem. It is the people who refuse to vaccinate either their children or themselves who pose a problem. It is people who don’t understand enough to take an antibiotic or medicine because they think it’s “dangerous” who pose a problem. It all stems from a lack of education about disease, vaccination and infection. The largest issue considered when deciding whether to put a new drug through trials is “what will the public’s reaction be?” If it’s known that it’s not publicly viable, i.e. people won’t take it, then the drug won’t be made because it’s not financially viable. An example is a specific bacteriophage (bacteria-targeting virus) that was distributed in Soviet Russia. Soviet Russia had no antibiotics and so this phage was their only option of combating bacterial infections. And it works. It works brilliantly. But it’s not available globally or even in the Western world because the general public are not going to want to ingest a virus, because viruses are seen as “disease-causing”. It’s an example of how people are afraid of what they don’t know. They’re ignorant, and their ignorance hinders antibiotic development.
Personally, I think disease, vaccination etc. education should be taught from primary school onwards. It should be as essential in the curriculum as maths or English. Because if it’s not taught, you end up with parents refusing to vaccinate their child because they think their child will get autism, because of course having an autistic child is so much worse than having a dead child. Not to mention that vaccinations do not result in autism (the single scientist that made that claim had his license revoked and his claim has since be disproved by many, many scientists). It’s these parents and these people that endanger entire societies. They think that their child not being immunised won’t affect other people, but it will. If you’re a parent who hasn’t immunised your child because you “don’t want to” and then another child, who can’t be vaccinated for genuine reasons, catches a deadly disease from you child, I would love to see you explain to that dead child’s parents why they caught that disease and died. “I didn’t want my child to be autistic, so sorry your child’s dead.” If I ever meet someone who hasn’t vaccinated their child, I’m keeping myself and my children away from them because no one I know is dying because of another person’s stupidity.
Another topic of discussion was the politics surrounding vaccines and antibiotic resistance. For starters, it was said how we in developed countries (who can develop vaccinations etc.) only truly care about a disease if it threatens us developing countries. A prime example is Ebola. Ebola’s been around for absolutely ages in Africa – many decades – and yet there was only a global panic when there was a risk of it leaving Africa and entering the Western countries. Thousands of people in Africa have died of Ebola over the decades, but did you hear about it? Of course not. Only when one nurse in the US got infected did people suddenly start caring. If a vaccine or cure for Ebola had been worked on decades ago, it wouldn’t have been such a problem recently.
Another example is HIV. HIV has existed in Africa for ages as well, but people only started caring about it when it became prevalent in developed countries. When it killed many people in developing countries no one cared, but when it migrated to developed countries there was a panic. It’s horrible, but that’s the reality of things.
Another topic of discussion within this is how antibiotic resistance isn’t even a priority for most governments. Research and funding is focused on cancer and AIDS etc. The fact that only a handful of new antibiotics have been released in the last thirty years apparently isn’t of any concern. The fact that it’s a very real reality that in fifty years someone in the UK or USA could get a simple bacterial infection and die because no antibiotics work. You could get a toothache and be dead. That’s obviously not scary to politicians. One of the speakers said that the only way people are going to realise the importance of antibiotics and such medicines is when there’s a new plague that wipes out a considerable portion of the world population. Basically, because we haven’t had a plague in so long, we’re complacent. We think we’re fine. We think we have medicines that can cure everything. The truth is, we’re so close to the opposite state. We’re so close to having no available, working antibiotics. I don’t know which will come first, but it will either be that a) we run out of effective antibiotics and people everywhere die of simple infections, or b) a new plague will arise, kill off at most 50% of the population and then people will be spurred into action.
One of the final topics covered was that we live a world that’s too sterile. And it’s true. The goals these days, especially in developed countries, are cleanliness, tidiness, order and sterility. And it’s dangerous. There would be nothing more dangerous than a society or a world that was completely sterile and in which no diseases exist. Think about it, if no one is ever exposed to a pathogen (a disease-causing agent) then their bodies will never know what it’s like to be diseased and their bodies will never make antibodies (infection-fighting proteins). If someone like that suddenly had a common cold, they’d die, because they’ve never been exposed to anything like it and their body won’t be able to cope. That’s why vaccinations and letting kids play in the mud and eat rocks is so essential. It lets their bodies know what infections are like and it lets their bodies build up a stock of antibodies to fight future infections. Parents who bubble-wrap their children and force a very clean and safe life upon them couldn’t be endangering them more.
So yeah, that was some of the major, most interesting topics covered in the seminar.
It was probably one of the best-spent three hours of my life.