News & Current Affairs

September 10, 2008

Antibiotic resistance rise fears

Antibiotic resistance rise fears

Antibiotic pills

The NHS is being warned about its use of antibiotics

The rise in antibiotic resistance is reaching worrying levels, experts say.

The Health Protection Agency said while the focus on infections such as MRSA had been largely successful, new trends in other bugs were now posing a threat.

For instance, 12% of bloodstream infections by E. coli in England, Wales and Northern Ireland now show some signs of not responding to drugs.

The HPA said the NHS must be careful over antibiotic use and urged industry to look into developing new drugs.

There are two main families of bacteria known as gram-positive, such as MRSA, and gram-negative, which includes E. coli and other less common bugs Acinetobacter and Pseudomonas.

There are some cracks in the system, but they are not big ones yet
Dr David Livermore, of the HPA

The HPA said there had been a drive to tackle MRSA in recent years which had helped reduce infection rates and led to a host of new antibiotics to be developed.

By comparison, the development of antibiotics targeting gram-negative bacteria such as E coli, which can cause a range of symptoms from mild diarrohea to abdominal cramps and kidney damage, was much less common.

The fight against drug resistance is an on-going battle because many bacteria constantly mutate, gaining resistance to current antibiotics in the process.

This is what has been happening in recent years to the likes of E coli.

HPA data shows that there are about 20,000 bloodstream infections of E. coli each year – although the true level of infections would be much higher if urinary tract infections were taken into account.

Of these, 12% show signs of resistance – up from about 4% at the turn of the century.

The infections are mostly not yet resistant to all forms of antibiotics, just what doctors call the first-line.

This means they are having to use back up drugs, which tend to have more side effects and raises the prospect of the widespread emergence of a new strain which is totally antibiotic resistant.

Cases

Indeed, reports have already emerged of such a scenario in Israel and the US, while four cases have been reported in the UK.

Dr David Livermore, an infections expert at the HPA, urged industry to start looking at developing new antibiotics.

But he added: “The NHS must be careful over its use of antibiotics to slow down the development of resistance.

“Hospitals must make sure they use the right dose, for the right length of time.

“GPs should not prescribe – nor patients expect – antibiotics for routine coughs and colds.

“Resistance has been accumulating. We are having to use reserve antibiotics more than previously… that is worrying.

“There are some cracks in the system, but they are not big ones yet.”

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September 8, 2008

‘Climate crisis’ needs brain gain

‘Climate crisis’ needs brain gain

CMS (M. Brice/Cern)

The UK alone has invested more than half-a-billion pounds in the LHC

The most brilliant minds should be directed to solving Earth’s greatest challenges, such as climate change, says Sir David King.

The former UK chief scientist will use his presidential address at the BA Science Festival to call for a gear-change among innovative thinkers.

He will suggest that less time and money is spent on endeavors such as space exploration and particle physics.

He says population growth and poverty in Africa also demand attention.

“The challenges of the 21st Century are qualitatively different from anything that we’ve had to face up to before,” he told reporters before the opening of the festival, which is being held this year in Liverpool.

“This requires a re-think of priorities in science and technology and a redrawing of our society’s inner attitudes towards science and technology.”

Huge expense

Sir David’s remarks will be controversial because they are being made just as the UK is about to celebrate its participation in the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s biggest physics experiment.

The Collider, built at the Cern laboratory under the Swiss-French border, is starting full operations this Wednesday.

It will seek to understand the building blocks of matter, and, in particular, try to find a mechanism that can explain why matter has mass.

This international venture is extremely expensive, however. The UK alone has contributed more than £500m to the LHC – the largest sum of money to date invested by a UK government in a single scientific project.

Sir David said it was time such funding – and the brains it supports – were pushed to answering more pressing concerns.

“It’s all very well to demonstrate that we can land a craft on Mars, it’s all very well to discover whether or not there is a Higgs boson (a potential mass mechanism); but I would just suggest that we need to pull people towards perhaps the bigger challenges where the outcome for our civilization is really crucial.”

Big ideas

Chief among these challenges for Sir David is the issue of climate change. When he was the government’s top scientist, he made the famous remark that the threat from climate change was bigger than the threat posed by terrorism.

He said alternatives to fossil fuels were desperately needed to power a civilization that would number some nine billion people by mid-century – nine billion people who would all expect a high standard of living.

“We will have to re-gear our thinking because our entire civilization depends on energy production, and we have been producing that energy very largely through fossil fuels; and we will have to remove our dependence from fossil fuels virtually completely, or we will have to learn how to capture carbon dioxide from fossil fuel usage,” he said.

Finding and exploiting clean energy sources was now imperative, he said; and Sir David questioned whether the spending on particle physics research in the shape of Cern’s Large Hadron Collider was the best route to that goal.

He even doubted whether Cern’s greatest invention was an outcome that could only have come from an institution that pursued so-called “blue skies research”.

“People say to me: ‘well what about the world wide web? That emerged from Cern’. Brilliant. Tim Berners Lee was the person who invented that. What if Tim Berners Lee had been working in a solar [power] laboratory? Perhaps he would have done it there as well. The spin-out would have come from the brilliant individual.”

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