Microbe Talk: When a Scratch Can Kill

Posted on September 30, 2016   by Andy Day

Last week, the ExCeL arena in London hosted New Scientist Live, a huge festival of science and technology. During the event the Microbiology Society collaborated with the Biochemical Society to organise a panel discussion about the problem of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) entitled ‘When A Scratch Can Kill’. We recorded the panel for the podcast, and Andy Day, our Public Affairs Intern tells us more about the event, below.

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Professor Laura Bowater from the Norwich Medical School chaired the panel, opening the session by talking about how AMR is a problem that needs the whole of society to work together to solve. The first speaker then took to the stage: Dr Caroline Barker, Consultant Microbiologist at Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital.

Caroline started by reminding the audience of all the situations in which clinicians currently use antibiotics, including surgery, cancer treatments and intensive care. She also explained that while resistant infections were rare 30 years ago, they are becoming more common, and that she is currently treating multiple patients who are affected by them. Anthony McDonnell, Head of Economic Research on the Review on Antimicrobial Resistance, was the next speaker, describing how modelling has suggested that AMR could cause up to 10 million deaths per year by 2050, making it the largest cause of death worldwide.

One of the ways of mitigating AMR described in the review is rapid diagnostics, which are needed to quickly determine which infections are drug-resistant, allowing them to be treated appropriately. This is the aim of the Longitude Prize, part-funded by the UK government, which offers £8 million to the inventor of a rapid diagnostic test. Tamar Ghosh, lead on the Prize, was the final speaker to take to the stage, explaining that the winner of the Prize will need to develop an affordable test that is usable anywhere in the world and returns results within 30 minutes.

The speakers agreed that one of the main contributors to the rise in AMR is the use of antibiotics in agriculture, as they can then get into the food chain and water supply. They also thought it critically important to reinforce public health messages discouraging unnecessary use of antibiotics, as this is an important driver of resistance. It was revealed that, in a recent survey, 38% of adults didn’t know that antibiotics are only effective against bacteria, and that among younger people even more were unsure. Tamar therefore highlighted the Superbugs game, a mobile app that the Longitude Prize has developed to combat this problem by engaging young people and educating them about AMR.

Anthony stated that there is probably a scientific limit to the number of antibiotics we are able to discover, therefore hoping to find new antibiotics is not the solution to AMR. Other members of the panel agreed that we can’t keep repeating the same mistakes, and that to combat AMR people need to change their behaviour. Laura stressed that we can’t just rely on doctors to stop dispensing antibiotics, and that everyone, from pharmaceutical companies to the public, needs to work together. The audience were reminded that AMR is a global problem, as bacteria can spread internationally in a short space of time, and therefore the whole world needs to work together to combat it.

Despite the warnings given by all the speakers, the panel remained hopeful, referencing the many public health measures such as sanitation and immunisation that have reduced the burden of killer diseases like diphtheria and whooping cough in the past. Anthony informed the audience that earlier in the week the UN General Assembly had signed a declaration committing to fight AMR – only the fourth time in history that a UN health declaration has been signed. Tamar reported that 205 different teams from 39 countries have entered the Longitude Prize so far, and with three years left to go until the Prize closes, she is convinced that a new, revolutionary technology will emerge to combat AMR.

The message from the panel was that we are all responsible for our own health, and we are aware of how we can reduce our risk of lifestyle diseases such as obesity and heart disease, and that tackling antimicrobial resistance is no different – it is a global problem and we are part of the solution. Laura concluded the discussion by telling the audience that the solution to AMR was “in your hands”.