On receiving the 1945 Nobel Prize in Medicine for discovering penicillin, Alexander Fleming finished his lecture with a warning: ‘There is the danger,’ he said, ‘that the ignorant man may easily underdose himself and by exposing his microbes to non-lethal quantities of the drug make them resistant.’ Antibiotic resistance is now one of the biggest threats to global health, food security and development. It could kill as many as 10 million people a year by 2050.
The announcement on 26 October that the Wellcome Trust, the Gates Foundation and the UK, US and Brazilian governments will spend $21.7 million over the next two years releasing Aedes aegypti mosquitoes infected with Wolbachia in Rio de Janeiro and Medellín is excellent news. Wolbachia, a bacterium that lives in the reproductive systems of insects and worms, is one of the commonest parasites in the world. In some of its invertebrate hosts it either kills males or feminises them. For others, infection with it is essential for fertility. Discovered in 1923 in the ovaries and testes of mosquitoes from Boston and Minneapolis, it remained an entomological curiosity for half a century before its importance began to be realised. Now it has its own website, and the Anti-Wolbachia Consortium, A-WOL, is funded by the Gates Foundation.
In 2014 the prime minister commissioned Jim O’Neill to conduct a review and make recommendations to ‘defeat the rising threat of superbugs’. O’Neill’s final report, published on 19 May, predicted that superbugs could kill 10 million people a year by 2050, the equivalent of one person every three seconds, more than cancer, with a cumulative cost of around $100 trillion.
In its last week in print, the Independent carried a piece under the headline: ‘One more thing imperialism has to answer for: dysentery.’ It’s a striking statement, but is it true?