Nigel French

Nelson Mail - - CATALYST -

Sir Paul Callaghan liked to il­lus­trate the in­cred­i­ble progress of med­i­cal sci­ence with an anec­dote about Nathan Roth­schild, the wealth­i­est man in the world, who died from an in­fected ab­scess in 1836.

This was dur­ing the pre­an­tibi­otic era. Even a small scratch could mean death from in­fec­tion.

Many young peo­ple, in­clud­ing the poet John Keats and our own Kather­ine Mans­field, died young from tu­ber­cu­lo­sis (TB).

Charles Dar­win never re­cov­ered from the death of his 10-year-old daugh­ter An­nie, also from TB in all like­li­hood.

The prospect of re­turn­ing to that vul­ner­a­ble con­di­tion is un­think­able.

There is dawn­ing pub­lic aware­ness of the world cri­sis with an­timi­cro­bial re­sis­tance (AMR). Our use (overuse) of an­timi­cro­bial medicines has fos­tered pop­u­la­tions of re­sis­tant or­gan­isms. The medicines kill all but the re­sis­tant bugs, which then flour­ish.

An­tibi­otics are the group of medicines used to treat bac­te­rial in­fec­tion. The term an­timi­cro­bial cov­ers the wider range of medicines for vi­ral, fun­gal, par­a­sitic and bac­te­rial in­fec­tions.

Mi­croor­gan­isms can be­come re­sis­tant through ran­dom mu­ta­tions in their DNA, or by ac­quir­ing bits of DNA from other mi­croor­gan­isms, even dead ones. Sci­en­tists call this ‘‘hor­i­zon­tal gene trans­fer’’.

No na­tion is an is­land. These hardy or­gan­isms en­joy the ben­e­fits of in­ter­na­tional travel. They spread read­ily from an­i­mals to hu­mans and vice versa. Sixty per cent of hu­man in­fec­tious dis­eases world­wide come from an­i­mals, and new dis­eases emerge as hu­mans en­croach fur­ther into wildlife habi­tats. HIV, Aids and Ebola are re­cent ex­am­ples.

Con­fu­sion over viruses and bac­te­ria has led to pa­tients putting pres­sure on doc­tors to dis­pense an­tibi­otics when the in­fec­tion was

Sci­en­tists have al­ways known that an­timi­cro­bial re­sis­tance would de­velop. It’s how evo­lu­tion works, writes and

vi­ral. An­tibi­otics don’t work on viruses.

There are few anti-vi­ral medicines that work either. The ef­fec­tive de­fence against viruses is vac­ci­na­tion, par­tic­u­larly in child­hood. Vac­ci­na­tions for the ma­jor­ity of vi­ral dis­eases are free in New Zealand, although some par­ents do not take ad­van­tage of these.

More than 1.2 mil­lion New Zealan­ders get the flu in­jec­tion, which pro­tects against the most dom­i­nant strains in cir­cu­la­tion. This is de­ter­mined each year by the World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion.

Doc­tors and vets are in­creas­ingly aware of the need to


An­tibi­otics don’t work on viruses, says Pro­fes­sor Nigel French.

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