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Bugs versus Drugs: the growing problem of antimicrobial resistance

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Bugs vs Drugs Science GalleryYesterday the Science Gallery was the venue for a Health Research Board (HRB) sponsored talk on antimicrobial resistance entitled “Bugs versus Drugs”. It was an evening of insightful discussion between Dr Fidelma Fitzpatrick (Consultant Microbiologist Beaumont Hospital and Senior Lecturer at RCSI), Dr Andrew Murphy (a General Practitioner and Professor in NUI Galway) and science journalist Maryn McKenna. The broadcaster Jonathan McCrea hosted the conversation. As the audience included non-scientists, Dr Fitzpatrick started by explaining that while “bugs” in microbiology include bacteria, viruses and fungi, antibiotics only work against bacteria and often only against a specific type of bacteria. Antibiotic resistance refers to the strategies bacteria develop to prevent antibiotics from acting against them.

Some of the figures quoted were staggering. According to a recent report 700,000 people die every year from infection by drug-resistant bacteria and other pathogens. Without intervention this figure could rise to 10 million deaths by 2050. Maryn McKenna described the problem as a “storm of antibiotic resistance”. The author of that recent report, Jim O’Neill, is an economist. This is not as strange as it may first seem as the widespread consequences of antimicrobial resistance include financial effects. Without action to tackle antimicrobial resistance the cost of lost global production between now and 2050 is estimated to be 100 trillion US dollars. The panel remarked that Lord O’Neill had provided an interesting viewpoint of the issue in his report. Indeed a recurrent theme of the evening’s talk was the need for collaboration between countries, sectors, governments and more to tackle the problem of antimicrobial resistance. Dr Murphy commented that there is no one silver bullet, lots of action is required and we have to collectively act together. For example we all have to be careful in how we use antimicrobials. They can be beneficial in certain situations such as antimicrobial surfaces in hospitals. However the widespread use of consumer antibacterial soaps, for example, has the potential to select for drug resistance.

We may be reaching a tipping point. Last week news broke that E. coli carrying the gene for resistance to the “last resort” antibiotic colistin was found in the US, following its discovery in China last November. This emphasises the necessity for concerted efforts to address drug resistant infections such as the global innovation fund established by the UK and China that was announced late last year.

The event finished with the panel opening the conversation up to the audience, some of whom offered their ideas on strategies to reduce antimicrobial resistance. Video of the evening’s discussion is available on the Science Gallery’s YouTube channel here.

Further Reading

    Some tweets from the night