From the President

Issue: Mycobacteria

27 August 2014 article

Tuberculosis (TB) was once the scourge of the rich and poor alike. Tragic heroines in literature and music were often featured as suffering from consumption and succumbing to the disease. Thanks to the introduction of mass vaccination and improvements in simple hygiene measures, TB has been much less common in the developed world in recent years.

However, TB remains a major health challenge. This edition of Microbiology Today focuses on some of the recent developments in combating diseases caused by mycobacteria and on the characteristics of these organisms.

It is appropriate that Microbiology Today focuses on these important pathogens. One of the delights of being a microbiologist is that the discipline is rarely far from the news. I am sure that many of us have been asked by friends, relatives and others what we think about bovine TB and the badger cull. Living in the South West, I am well aware of the strength of public opinion in both pro-cull and anti-cull camps. We are often approached to comment at short notice on items in the news – it is important that the Society gives expert opinion when asked about such issues. Recently we have been asked to comment on the increasing resistance to antibiotics, the death of babies from nutrient drips contaminated with Bacillus cereusLegionella in a home-birthing pool and several other issues.

Of course, it is regrettable that many of the microbiological issues in the news are about tragedies. As well as the events above, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and the May 2014 declaration of a polio public health emergency are two of the more wide-reaching microbiological events. Nevertheless, there are also positive stories about micro-organisms that we need to communicate – antibiotic producers, food producers and probiotics, for example. Two years ago we had an award-winning display at the Chelsea Flower Show showing how micro-organisms contribute to a healthy soil and to increased plant growth. The Society is keen that we present the profession effectively and well, with experts who are trained to talk to the media. As you will realise if you listen to an investigative journalist, talking to the media is not like talking to one’s scientific colleagues or one’s family. A radio journalist once told me that he disliked the ‘two-handed scientist’. In other words he did not want to hear alternative views (i.e. ‘on the other hand’) but wanted a short, precise and catchy statement. My job was to present the facts; his job was to produce an entertaining programme. If you are interested in presenting a professional view of newsworthy issues in microbiology, then please let me know.

If your interests in representing the Society do not extend to talking to the media, have you considered becoming a Society Champion? We launched the Champions scheme in April 2014 and have had a good uptake, but there is still an opportunity to come forward and represent microbiology in your locality. The Society is working with its Champions to represent our discipline, to build our membership and to extend our reach. Further details are available by email.

I am writing this on the day that the Prime Minister has announced the creation of an internationally focused commission, led by the economist Jim O’Neill and partly funded by the Wellcome Trust, to examine the key issues of antimicrobial resistance. As I write, we do not know the composition of the commission, but I hope that Society members will be involved in its work. Through participating in important policy developments, as well as ensuring that our message gets across through the media, we can change public perceptions, affect policy decisions, and show that microbiology has an important contribution to make to modern society.


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Image: I.Atherton.