Mankind, science and disease in deadly fight

As Britain announces a huge push to tackle the three most deadly developing-world diseases, a top scientist has warned about drug resistance. Can humans and science beat disease?

Malaria, tuberculosis and HIV: these three dreaded diseases cause more deaths worldwide than any other illnesses caused by a single infectant. Between them they claim almost four million lives per year, and ruin millions more. Ten million children living today are thought to have been orphaned by TB alone.

These are horrifying figures. But there is good news too: aid workers and medical scientists have experienced significant success in the fight against each of these three scourges. The TB death rate has fallen by 41% in the past 20 years; doctors express hope that malaria will no longer be life-threatening within a generation; and on Monday a top AIDS charity announced that HIV infections have dropped by 700,000 since 2006.

In the battle against nature’s most deadly microbes, humans appear to be getting the upper hand. And yesterday the British Government announced a plan to help drive the victory home, pledging £1 billion to the Global Fund, which helps fight diseases in the developing world.

‘We all need to play our part in working towards a world free of HIV/AIDS, malaria and TB,’ said international development secretary Justine Greening. Is it really reasonable to hope that we could soon defeat the world’s greatest killers?

Perhaps. But just as humans seem to be winning the war against those diseases, Britain’s Chief Medical Officer has offered a chilling warning to dispel any blithe optimism: ‘Bacteria are fighting back,’ she wrote in an article in last week’s Sunday Times: ‘the drugs don’t work.’

Sally Davies was not, of course, implying that medicine is a scam. Instead she was referring to disturbing evidence which suggests that many infections we believed we had tamed are evolving resistance to antibiotics. The more we use our ‘magic bullets’, the less magic they become.

Davies paints a terrifying picture of a world in which essential operations we take for granted are too dangerous because of the danger of infection, and where epidemics wreak havoc on developed societies. The date she sets for this scenario is 2046.

A mixed diagnosis

Drug resistance poses a worrying threat to the health of our species. But optimists believe we can counter it if we all work together: medical science has time and again achieved things we never believed possible – why should that change now?

Do not be so sure, doubters reply. If the triumphs we complacently believed were permanent turn out to be temporary fixes, our progress may not only stall but even reverse.

There is a middle ground. The arms race with viruses and bacteria, some say, is not one we can ever hope to win. We must keep fighting disease even as it evolves, gaining ground inch by inch and nipping new threats in the bud. Outright victory is impossible, but that does not mean we are doomed.

You Decide

  1. Do you think it’s realistic to imagine that humans will one day eradicate disease?
  2. Is it right for the British Government to increase aid to poorer parts of the world while cutting public spending at home?

Activities

  1. Think of someone (a relative, a friend or even yourself) who would be dead if it wasn’t for modern medical science? If you feel comfortable sharing it, tell their story to the class.
  2. Pick a disease and write a short factfile on it: what causes it, what are the symptoms, how does it spread and how can doctors treat it?

Some People Say...

“Medicine is the greatest of all modern miracles.”

What do you think?

Q & A

This future without antibiotics sounds pretty scary. What can be done?
It’s partly up to ordinary people like you. Part of the reason why diseases are evolving so fast is that doctors often prescribe antibiotics in situations where they may not be necessary or even useful. That’s mostly the doctors’ fault, of course – but they are partly responding to pressure from patients who demand miracle cures. In other words, don’t take medicine you don’t need and don’t try to persuade your doctor to give you some.
What else?
Most experts believe they can find more antibiotics and there are other possible cures to pursue. But that means research – and research needs funding. As so often, it all comes down to money.

Word Watch

Single infectant
According to the World Health Organisation, the most deadly diseases can be caused by several different infections or illnesses that don’t have any link to bacteria or viruses at all. Heart disease is the most common cause of death, followed by strokes.
Microbes
Microscopic life forms like bacteria and microbes. They are so small that millions could fit onto a pencil tip. There are many micro-organisms that humans could not live a single day without, but some also cause deadly diseases.
HIV/AIDS
Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a microbe which infects vital cells in the immune system and decreases your body’s ability to fight disease. Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is the condition that this virus can cause, leaving the patient exhausted and vulnerable to illnesses from cancer to the common cold.
Antibiotics
A medicine that kills bacteria or stops them from reproducing. Antibiotics are actually produced by microbes themselves! The most famous example is penicillin.

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