Dame Sally Davies, Master of Trinity and UK Special Envoy on Antimicrobial Resistance, features in a new Royal Society–BBC Ideas film about a health crisis that isn’t so much ‘looming’ as already linked to millions of deaths worldwide.
As well as the perils of antibiotic resistance, What would a world without antibiotics be like? also explains the revolution in medicine wrought by the discovery of antibiotics, how bacteria become resistant, and what we can do about it as a society.
The resistance of bacteria to drugs is sometimes called ‘the silent pandemic.’ Dame Sally says this silence is a big part of the problem and why she campaigns to raise awareness and keep the issue on the international agenda.
Appointed UK Special Envoy on AMR by the UK Government in 2019, Dame Sally works with international organizations such as the World Health Organization to galvanize action by nation states, drug companies and the general public in the fight against drug resistance.
It is a mission against resistance not only against antibiotics, but also against antifungals and antiparasitics (hence antimicrobial resistance or AMR).
Commissioning Editor for BBC Ideas, Cordelia Hebblethwaite said the film, made by Angel Sharp Media, was one of 12 in an ongoing partnership with the Royal Society.
It felt a really important topic for us to cover, and very much public service journalism. One of our aims on BBC Ideas is to get people thinking, and we have done this via a number of thought experiments where we invite people to imagine what “a world without” x/y/z would be like.
As well as academics from Imperial, Stanford, the Wellcome Trust and Trinity, the film includes a powerful testimony from Everly Macario from Chicago, talking about Simon, her 18-month-old son, who woke up one morning with a fever.
We went to the hospital, the emergency room. They said they gave him a broad-spectrum antibiotic. And then they took me to another room and they’re like, “Your son has an infection. We don’t know the source.”
We were in the ICU with like 10 doctors, and they said he wasn’t really going to make it. At that point, I knew that he was dead. I could feel it.
And that’s when we learned that Simon had contracted an antibiotic resistant bacterium, a superbug. And I had never heard of any of this.
If we fail to control antimicrobial resistance, it will have catastrophic consequences globally, leading to deaths caused from hitherto curable infections contracted for example during routine surgery, cancer treatments or something as minor as a cut to your finger.
The film cites a recent study of 494 million patient records showing that 1.27 million people died as a direct result of antibiotic resistance in 2019, and that antimicrobial resistance played a role in about five million deaths.
By 2050, 10 million people worldwide are predicted to die from complications with superbugs and resistant microbes unless effective action is taken. In 2022 the World Health Organization listed super bugs as one of the most serious threats to health.
The huge irony is that Sir Alexander Fleming predicted this situation more than 75 years ago, after his discovery of Penicillin, the world’s first antibiotic, for which he received the Nobel Prize in 1945. During his acceptance speech for the award, he said:
The time may come when penicillin can be bought by anyone in the shops. then there is the danger that the ignorant man may easily underdose himself, and by exposing his microbes to the non-lethal quantities of the drug, make them resistant.
Not only humans would be affected, says Dame Sally.
A world without antibiotics – I sometimes call it “the post-antibiotic apocalypse” – would impact on our food chain too, because animals would get ill, plants would get ill and die and water across the world would be contaminated. We would be in the most dreadful mess and most people would die young.
While the situation is serious, there are simple steps we can take as individuals to help combat resistance: preventing infection and the need to take antibiotics in the first place by washing hands in soap and water; and if you are prescribed antibiotics, making sure you finish the course.