The resistible rise of antibiotic resistance

Clarence Tam For The Straits Times
16 Nov, 2016

In the 1840s, the Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis made a startling observation: Women were five times more likely to die from childbirth when cared for by doctors rather than midwives.

Believing that doctors performing autopsies were spreading infections to mothers, he made handwashing at his hospital mandatory and drastically reduced maternal deaths. The simple lesson was this: Good hand hygiene is important, not simply for our own benefit, but to avoid harm to others.

Public health is full of such salutary lessons. The 19th century British reformer Edwin Chadwick showed that living conditions among the poor affected their health and life expectancy. The subsequent Victorian sanitary reforms vastly improved the health of Britain’s population, much as they did in Singapore’s younger days.

But in 1928, Alexander Fleming made a discovery that revolutionised medicine. A mould that had contaminated bacterial cultures in his laboratory produced a substance that killed the bacteria.

The antibiotic era was born.

 Infections that once killed could be treated with a simple course of penicillin. Procedures that make the body vulnerable to infections, including chemotherapy and transplantation, were made possible by antibiotics to counter these infections. Soon, we thought, infectious diseases would cease to plague humanity.

Yet antibiotics are not the silver bullet we once believed. Gradually, bacteria have evolved mechanisms to counteract these antibiotics.

Widespread antibiotic use has enabled resistant bacteria to thrive. Globally, antimicrobial-resistant infections kill 700,000 people each year. Without drastic action, this figure will rise 10-fold by 2050; half of those deaths will occur in Asia.

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Photo by: The Straits Times