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Global Health Histories Explores Antimicrobial Resistance and 20th Century Medicine

3 Dec, 2014

B0006626 MRSA

Earlier this year a report from the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned that resistance to common antimicrobial drugs has reached alarming levels, with fewer and fewer effective treatment options for fighting infections. In light of this, a special Global Health Histories seminar is taking place in Geneva this morning, to trace the history of antimicrobial resistance and 20th century medicine. Dr Alexander Medcalf, Outreach Historian at the WHO Collaborating Centre for Global Health Histories, explains why looking back can help us move forward… 

Antimicrobial resistance is a complex challenge and a major global problem. It brings a science fiction-style question ‘what happens when our super medicines cease to be effective?’ into sharp reality. Several factors are driving drug resistance, including the use of poor quality antimicrobials, or patients not completing the full course of antibiotics as prescribed. Antimicrobial resistance has the potential to plunge large parts of the world into a ‘pre-antibiotic’ era, threatening our ability to treat common infectious diseases and turning standard medical treatments into perilous procedures.

Although sometimes perceived as a recent and imminent threat, antimicrobial resistance has a 70-year history to be told. This Global Health Histories seminar will explore a number of historical situations in which the current challenges relating to antibiotic resistance were shaped, as well bringing perspectives on the ongoing work to counter resistance.

Part of the seminar will look to discuss the historical context of overuse of antibiotics, with Professor Christoph Gradmann from the University of Oslo, exploring the marketing of antibiotics in the 1950s. This will help shed light on the way medicines that were initially intended to cure life-threatening conditions became a popular prescription in general practice.

He will also look at the how hospital hygiene affected the potential for hospitals to be at the vanguard of therapeutic progress but instead became centres of disease spread and evolution. Drug development will also feature in the discussion, with special emphasis on the way the pharmaceutical industry faced the challenge of early resistance to antibiotics such as penicillin. Prof Gradmann will also look at the historical approach to antibiotic dystopias – the notion of the ‘end of antibiotics’.

Wellcome Trust director, Dr Jeremy Farrar joins the panel to share his expertise in infectious diseases and his experiences of seeing the effect of drug resistance during his time working in Vietnam. He has warned that antimicrobial resistance is reaching a tipping point and the how the serious effects of it will creep into UK almost without notice.

The expert panel will also include Dr Margaret Chan, director-general of the WHO, who has spearheaded the drive bring attention to the issue of antimicrobial resistance – making the sobering warning that ‘the world is on the brink of losing these miracle cures’ back in 2011. She is joined by her colleague Dr Marie-Paule Kieny, assistant director-general of Health Systems and Innovation at the WHO.

The seminar is part of the wider Global Health Histories project, supported by the Wellcome Trust, which is in its tenth year. Its mission is based on the principle that understanding the history of health, especially from the last 60 years, helps the global public health community to respond to the challenges of today. It is hoped that this context and understanding will help shape a healthier future for everyone, especially those most in need. Unravelling the often-complex history of antimicrobial resistance could provide useful insights to help us combat drug resistance.

You can register to listen to the online broadcast, which begins at 11am today (12pm CET) and  follow the discussion on Twitter with the hashtag #GHHistories. Find out more about the Wellcome Trust-funded Global Health Histories project in this post on our blog. The Global Health Histories project is a collaboration between the Centre for Global Health Histories at the University of York and the WHO Knowledge, Ethics and Research Department.

Image credit: MRSA – Annie Cavanagh, Wellcome Images

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