Sunday August 30, 2015

The looming crisis of antibiotic resistance

Bacteria in a petri dish

Bacteria in a petri dish (Peter Dazeley)

Listen 24:13

Sir Alexander Fleming saw it coming. He discovered penicillin in 1928, a breakthrough that made lethal infections treatable and revolutionized medicine. It won him the Nobel Prize; but he warned of the dangers of antibiotic resistance, well aware that bacteria are pretty much infinitely adaptable and would develop immunity to drugs devised to kill them.

Specifically, Fleming cautioned against the overuse and improper use of antibiotics, knowing that an overly enthusiastic reliance on antibiotics could end up neutralizing their effectiveness. Those warnings went unheeded.

Antibiotic resistance now threatens to become a full-blown public health crisis on a global scale - so much so that British Prime Minister David Cameron has made the fight against antibiotic resistance a priority of his government. 

Cameron asked a prominent economist, Jim O'Neill, to lead a review on antimicrobial resistance for the British government. It was released in December, 2014, and it revealed some  terrifying numbers. For instance, inaction on drug-resistant bacteria could mean as many as 10 million extra deaths globally every year and a cumulative economic cost of $100 trillion by 2050 - a mere 35 years away.

Already, about 50,000 people in Europe and the United States are killed each year by bacteria and other microbes that have developed resistance to the drugs we throw at them.

Michael speaks with Dame Sally Davies, who is on the front lines of the British government's campaign against antimicrobial resistance. She is the UK's Chief Medical Officer and a fellow of the Royal Society.

Michael's interview with Dame Sally Davies first aired in February