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Biomedical Research

Antimicrobial Resistance- What it is and Why it’s a Problem

Antimicrobial resistance, or AMR, is when microorganisms change or mutate (change in the base sequence of the DNA) after being exposed to an antimicrobial drug, such as an antibiotic or anti-malaria. This allows the microorganisms to become immune to the effects of the drugs and “superbugs”, such as MRSA, can develop.

During the lockdown, many museums and festivals have chosen to continue their yearly programs in a digital format. Some of the most famous events in the world of academia, such as the Hay Festival, have become free and available online, creating countless opportunities for individuals from all over the world to come together and learn. When I heard about the Hay Festival digital program, I was extremely excited and delved in and booked dozens of lectures with famous names such as Laura Bates, Gloria Steinam, and Stephen Fry. Although all of them were incredible, the one that stood out to me was “The Drugs that Don’t Work” with Dame Sally Davies. 

Sally Davies was the Chief Medical Officer for England as well as the Chief Scientific Adviser at the Department of Health. She started her career as a clinical practitioner and has pioneered research and advancements in many medical fields. The particular lecture I watched was based on her book of the same title, “The Drugs that Don’t Work”. The book is based on antimicrobial resistance, a deadly phenomenon afflicting the world. Antimicrobial resistance, or AMR, is when microorganisms change or mutate (change in the base sequence of the DNA)  after being exposed to an antimicrobial drug, such as an antibiotic or anti-malaria. This allows the microorganisms to become immune to the effects of the drugs and “superbugs”, such as MRSA, can develop.

MRSA, or Methicillin Staphylococcus Aureus, is a “superbug” which can cause infections in various areas of the body. And the main issue faced with MRSA is that it is resistant to most common antibiotics which allows it to spread rapidly in hospitals through contact, causing infections ranging from mild skin ones to life-threatening ones such as lung, blood, and surgical wound infections. For a while, it was a major problem in British hospitals, and many surgical patients were advised to bring their own hand towels to use for washing to ensure the towel wouldn’t drape along the floor and potentially have contact with the bacteria. It is estimated that 2% of the population will carry MRSA and it can be transmitted through touching someone with it or an object that a carrier has held. In hospitals now they still test you for MRSA before any operation and you will likely have a swab taken from the skin in your armpit, groin or nose to test for it. 

One of the things that were most poignant to me about her lecture was just how often antimicrobials are used in the farming and aquaculture industries. Many farmers use antibiotics to promote growth in plants and reduce the risk of infections. The antibiotics are a cheaper alternative to implementing infection control and hygiene measures so have been used excessively and unnecessarily. Not only this, but they are also used in aquaculture, the breeding, and farming of fish, to prevent and treat bacterial disease. These same antibiotics are used to treat human pathogens as well, so as they are used so frequently in farming industries, it allows them to adapt their DNA coding and become resistant to treatment. This is detrimental to human health and Sally Davies said that every year, more people are now dying of the effects of AMR than cancer. 

Are you shocked that you do not have much knowledge on an issue that could prove so deadly to the human race? Dame Sally Davies said that one of the greatest downfalls is the lack of education for the public on AMR. Although some people in the UK may be accustomed to the little “AMR song” they play in general practitioner surgeries, we have nowhere near enough exposure to the true risks of antimicrobial resistance. Sally Davies even went as far as to state that the effects of AMR could reduce the global GDP, gross domestic product, by 3.5% which is a significant loss.

In order to reduce the increase of antimicrobial resistance, there are a few measures that everyone can take. For example, it is imperative that you do not share prescriptions with others as If that person has a viral infection, and you are giving them antibiotics, the medication will not work and will increase the AMR in the microbiome in their gut. Misusing medication is one of the most dangerous things you can do, even if you are not talking about antimicrobial resistance. Furthermore, do not use any leftover prescriptions or self prescribe if you have not sought the advice of a registered doctor. Although you might think that there is no harm in trialing a medication, especially if you are experiencing similar symptoms as before, it is incredibly unwise to do this without going to your doctor first. 

This lecture was informative and shed light on a complex issue that may prove very dangerous in our future. Antimicrobial resistance needs to be addressed and it is important that the public is educated on it and how they can reduce their risk.

By Sophie Farr

I am a student from the UK and my ambition is to become a doctor.

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