Article - TB and antibiotic resistance

Inevitably, during the last few weeks, Parliament has been much preoccupied with the various Brexit Bills and negotiations. 

But, underneath the surface, there are as always many other things going on, some of which will have implications at least as important and wide-ranging, but which attract virtually no attention in the media. 

On Thursday, there was a debate in the House of Commons about a disease which used to be talked about in hushed tones and figured heavily in novels of the Victorian period. The disease in question, TB, then went out of fashion in Britain because it was virtually eradicated. Of course, we have all become familiar over recent years with the horrors of Bovine TB and with the controversies surrounding efforts to eradicate this veterinary version of the disease. 

But, so far as human beings were concerned, I grew up thinking of TB as a purely historical phenomenon.

Not any longer. TB is now again one of the world's big killers, accounting for more deaths than malaria. And even in Britain, we have seen it return, with a few thousand cases a year. 

The really important point here, is that the danger of TB has returned because the bacteria have now developed resistance to many of the anti-microbial drugs (i.e. what we human beings usually call antibiotics) which had been used so successfully to clobber TB in the 20th Century. This development of so-called "anti-microbial resistance" has ramifications that go way beyond TB itself. 

If antibiotics become useless because the bacteria have developed resistance to them, then all sorts of people all over the world are liable to die from things that wouldn't present by major danger if the antibiotics were working ok. 

It is a little known, but enormously important fact, that Britain has been taking a lead on mobilising the governments of the world to tackle this terrible problem over the last few years. 

Two heroic figures, Lord Jim O'Neill and our Chief Medical Officer Professor Dame Sally Davies, have been mobilising the World Health Organisation and the governments of the G20 countries to organise and fund massive new research into antibiotics to which the bugs are not resistant and to prevent (or at least significantly diminish) the widespread unneccesary use of antibiotics in human beings and animals (which is what has caused the bacteria to develop resistance through genetic mutations). 

Backed by two successive U.K. Prime Ministers, this valiant duo have probably done more to limit the loss of human life than any other two living individuals. 

But I wonder how many readers of this column have read all about this remarkable story on the front pages of the national newspapers that are currently preoccupied with the minutiae of the Brexit legislation.