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Antibiotics in a Changing World

The planet.

Head of Programmes, Michelle Brown reflects on this semester’s first thought-provoking offering from the Our Changing World lecture series.

How lucky we were to have been born after the discovery and clinical application of antibiotics. But will future generations be so lucky? This was the question that plagued my mind during the Our Changing World lecture on 24th September at the University of Edinburgh.

Professor of Microbial Genetics David Gally from The Roslin Institute at the University of Edinburgh presented on “Survival in the Antibiotic Resistance Era” and wove an interesting tale of how far society has travelled and the challenges ahead in relation to anti-biotics.

The story started when Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish biologist, was the first to recognize the therapeutic potential of penicillin in 1928. However it was not for many years that it was available for experimental use in humans. In 1942, Mrs. Anne Sheafe Miller was near death at a hospital in Connecticut suffering from a streptococcal infection which at the time was a common cause of death. Her doctors were able to obtain a small amount of what was then an exploratory drug. Mrs. Miller survived and it is estimated that 50 to 100 million more lives have since been saved from penicillin.

Have humans been too lax with the use of life-saving drugs? Prof. Gally noted that in 2009 it was estimated that 80 percent of antibiotics sold in the US that year were used on farms.   Antibiotics have been pumped into animals to satiate humans demand for meat. If I needed one more reason to turn fully vegetarian then I surely had it on Tuesday!

Around the world, infectious diseases are the leading cause of death of children and teenagers and one of the leading causes in adults. This is much higher in places such as Sub-Saharan Africa, South and South-East Asia and many of these deaths are attributable to treatable diseases although treatment is often not available to those most in need.

I have seen first-hand how antibiotics can save lives when needed and through my work and travels overseas I have also been amazed at how easily they can be prescribed and misused.   For billions around the world who are not so lucky to live in a place like Scotland with great medical care, finding ways to increase rapid and accurate diagnosis can help to ensure the correct use of antibiotics.

It was inspiring to hear about the ‘Longitude Prize’ offered by Nesta which was promoted on Tuesday evening challenging researchers and innovators to come up with a cheap accurate and easy to use point of care test kit for bacterial infections.

Hope was not lost for those who joined the lecture on the 24th September. Prof Gally outlined how we have the tools to enlighten and can use knowledge to help tackle the new challenges and super-bugs ahead.

Our Changing World lectures look at global challenges facing society and the role of science and academia in addressing them. See the Global Academy website for more details of the upcoming lectures.

Note: Particular thanks should go to the Social Responsibility and Sustainability Volunteers who helped with ushering and running the microphones for the Q & A on the evening.

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