About me
Blog archive
About me

Tackling the threat of antimicrobial resistance: from policy to sustainable action



by sjhoward

This is the 2,300th post. It was published at 13:00 on Monday, 27th April 2015.

This post was filed under:
» Health
» Writing Elsewhere

Today, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B has published a paper I co-wrote with the Chief Medical Officer and some public health colleagues on antimicrobial resistance policy. The abstract says:

Antibiotics underpin all of modern medicine, from routine major surgery through to caesarean sections and modern cancer therapies. These drugs have revolutionized how we practice medicine, but we are in a constant evolutionary battle to evade microbial resistance and this has become a major global public health problem. We have overused and misused these essential medicines both in the human and animal health sectors and this threatens the effectiveness of antimicrobials for future generations. We can only address the threat of anti-microbial resistance (AMR) through international collaboration across human and animal health sectors integrating social, economic and behavioural factors.Our global organizations are rising to the challenge with the recent World Health Assembly resolution on AMR and development of the Global Action plan but we must act now to avoid a return to a pre-antibiotic era.

The paragraph which has received most attention – perhaps surprisingly in a paper which predicts that more people will be dying of AMR than cancer and diabetes combined within decades – is one on food prices:

Public support for action to tackle AMR is crucial, as many measures to mitigate the effects of resistance will incur substantial financial and societal costs, which will ultimately be borne by the public, both through taxation and,probably, through higher purchase costs of products whose manufacturing methods are altered. For example, a pricing paradox exists in farming whereby antibiotics, an increasingly scarce natural resource, cost less than implementation of more rigorous hygiene practices. Reversal of this paradox may lead to higher food prices. While these costs are undoubtedly lesser than the long-term cost of unmitigated antibiotic resistance, they are also more immediate and, superficially at least, discretionary.

Anyway, it’s all quite interesting stuff (though I guess I’m a bit biased). Read it here.


This post was filed under: Health, Writing Elsewhere

Happy birthday, John Snow: you’ve never been so relevant



by sjhoward

This is the 2,299th post. It was published at 13:10 on Sunday, 15th March 2015.

The picture at the top of this post is of a bloke called Chris and the replica Broad Street pump in Soho. It was posted on Flickr by Matt Biddulph, and is used under its Creative Commons licence.

The other two pictures are my own.

This post was filed under:
» Health
»

Today marks the 202nd birthday of John Snow, the anaesthetist whose work on cholera changed the course of modern medical history, kicked off the modern era of public health, and—in 2003—saw him voted the greatest doctor of all time in a UK poll.

Snow is best known for his work on the 1854 cholera outbreak in Soho, London. He used what we would now call epidemiological techniques to map the outbreak and figure out that cases were centred around the Broad Street water pump. It turned out that the pump was dug mere inches from a cesspit which was leaking into the water supply, causing illness in those who drank from it.

3972414497_216f402acd_b

The relevance of Snow’s work to modern public health cannot be overstated. Having spent much of his bicentennial year writing speeches with the Chief Medical Officer, I’ve found myriad parallels to draw between modern public health and the 1854 outbreak, and today seems as good a day as any to share some of them.

In the recent past, public health has been criticised for being too remote and too disconnected from the communities it serves, leading to a considerable gap between what public health teams provide and what people actually need. There are a number of ways of tackling this, but perhaps one of the most important developments in the last few decades has been the cultivation of truly integrated multidisciplinary public health teams. These bring together people with a wide variety of backgrounds and skills to work on some incredibly knotty problems.

And so it was with the 1854 cholera outbreak.

Snow couldn’t have worked on the outbreak alone, as he had no community connections. Without his partnership with Reverend Henry Whitehead, the curate of St Luke’s Church in Soho, Snow would never have been able to find details of the cholera cases he needed to draw up his impressive maps and tackle the outbreak. Only by working with someone with different skills and a different background was Snow really able to connect with his community.

Following the Health and Social Care Act of 2012, much of the responsibility for public health services passed to Local Authorities. You don’t have to spend too much time around public health teams to hear occasional grumbles about this—while people recognise the potential for influencing the wider determinants of health by working in Local Authorities, there are often frustrations about having to convince non-specialists of the utility and evidence base of certain courses of public health action.

And so it was with the 1854 cholera outbreak.

People often believe that Snow himself removed the handle from the infamous Broad Street pump to prevent the spread of the cholera outbreak. He didn’t; probably because that would have been considered vandalism, and possibly because—as an anaesthetist—plumbing skills weren’t his forte.1 Instead, he talked his Local Authority into removing the pump handle. He initially found it difficult to get the message across, and his beautiful maps actually stem from his attempts to persuade the Local Authority to take action rather than from his investigation itself. Ultimately, the Local Authority either bought his argument or tired of him banging his drum, and removed the handle, saving the day.

In modern public health, people often complain that national government interferes in the ability of local teams to act, either through interfering with the supply of funds, or through giving seemingly endless direction on things that should be considered or done at the local level.

And so it was with the 1854 cholera outbreak.

It’s an oft-forgotten footnote to the outbreak story that, having heard of what had happened in Soho, the national government ordered that the Broad Street pump handle be re-attached. There were too reasons for this: electorally, the closure of the Broad Street pump was a bad thing, for it was one of the most popular pumps in London, renowned for the clarity and taste of its water; scientifically, it was thought that the idea of faeco-oral transmission of disease was simply too disgusting to be true.

snow

Yet when the pump handle was reattached, the outbreak didn’t restart. This was probably because the cesspit next to the pump well had been emptied—but it should also remind us that no matter how crazy they may seem, not all ideas from national government are completely mad.

Effectiveness in modern public health can often involve challenging and overturning the status quo, sometimes in the face of considerable opposition from those with entrenched views.

And so it was with the 1854 cholera outbreak.

At the time of the outbreak, disease was thought to be transmitted by miasma—bad air. Today, it’s easy to underestimate the degree to which this faintly ridiculous theory was accepted: a glance through contemporary medical journals will reveal paper after paper on the design of hospitals and homes to promote the best flow of miasma. Indeed, one of the reasons so many Victorian hospitals had their morgues in the basement was so that miasma from the dead wouldn’t waft across other patients.

plan

Snow—an anaesthetist, let us not forget—overturned the apple-cart of contemporary medicine by suggesting that disease could be water-borne. Virtually nobody believed him, and after 1854, he spent much of the following four years prior to his death trying to compile data to demonstrate his findings. His was a revolution that didn’t come easily. The Lancet, in an editorial on Snow’s theory in 1855, said

In riding his hobby very hard, he has fallen down through a gully-hole and has never since been able to get out again … Has he any facts to show in proof? No!

Yet, of course, germ theory proved Snow right—and The Lancet finally got round to publishing a correction on Snow’s 200th birthday.

When working in public health in the North of England, it can often feel like breakthroughs made here are not fully appreciated, respected and integrated into practice until they’ve been endorsed by others—and particularly those in London.

And so it was with the 1854 cholera outbreak.

Snow was born in York trained at Newcastle Medical School. The first cholera outbreak he helped to tackle was in Newcastle in 1831, and though he was just 18 at the time, many believe that this is when he first developed the idea that cholera may be transmitted through water. Yet it wasn’t until his London-based work 23 years later that anyone took a blind bit of notice!


  1. Or maybe, like so many modern anaesthetists, he talked endlessly about the Hagen–Poiseuille law and considered himself something of a plumbing expert. 


This post was filed under: Health,

The picture at the top of this post is of a bloke called Chris and the replica Broad Street pump in Soho. It was posted on Flickr by Matt Biddulph, and is used under its Creative Commons licence.

The other two pictures are my own.

Art of the Renaissance and anatomy



by sjhoward

This is the 2,297th post. It was published at 17:49 on Friday, 6th February 2015.

This post was filed under:
» Health
»
»
»

Wendy and I had a wander round the Scottish National Gallery last weekend, as we often do when we visit Edinburgh. I know really nothing about art; Wendy knows a bit more. But we both enjoy a few minutes which take our minds of anything that bears any resemblance to stuff we do at work.

As I wandered, I was reminded of two research papers, one of which I’ve intended to feature on here for years, and the other which came out only last month.

The first was written by a neurosurgery registrar I once worked with. I’m sure he’s a high-flying surgeon these days. It’s from JRSM (where else), and is called Brain ‘imaging’ in the Renaissance. He wrote about the resemblance of Renaissance paintings to brain anatomy. I like this paper because of the slightly off-kilter thought process it would take to notice these things, and also because—in reference to Gerard David’s painting of the Transfiguration of Christ—it contains one of my favourite paragraphs from any paper:

Gerard_David_-_The_Transfiguration_of_Christ_-_WGA06014

Gerard David’s painting of the ‘Transfiguration of Christ’ resembles a coronal section of the brain. We find again the concept of the ventricles as the abode of the soul. God is represented in the third ventricle, with Elijah and Moses in the temporal horns of the lateral ventricles. Jesus, conduit between the Word of God and the human race, resembles the brain stem/spinal cord, conveying the message from the brain to limbs and organs.

Even with the annotated images in the paper, I can’t even begin to buy the argument that there’s any intentional resemblance (or, indeed, much of a resemblance at all). But that doesn’t matter: the fantastical combination of high-level anatomy, religion and art in those sentences tickles my grey cells no end. It’s like worlds are colliding right in front of my eyes.

The second paper is similar, but has a slightly different—though equally bizarre—though process behind it. Consider, if you will, Pinturicchio’s Madonna and Child with St John the Baptist:

Bernardino_di_Betto_called_Il_Pinturicchio_and_workshop_-_The_Virgin_and_Child_with_the_Infant_Saint_John_the_Baptist_-_Google_Art_Project 2

Clearly, there’s only one reaction anyone could have when examining this masterful artwork from centuries ago: what the hell is going on with Madonna’s little finger?! And it’s not just Madonna as painted by Pinturicchio that has something funny with the fifth finger—Botticelli’s Portrait of a Young Man depicts something very similar:

Sandro_Botticelli_150

Having noticed the weird finger in a load of art from the same period, Lazerri et al undertook a systematic reappraisal of the fifth finger in Renaissance paintings, in which they try to explain the funny finger from a medical or anatomical perspective. They don’t really come to much of a conclusion. They say that lots of subjects of Renaissance paintings seem to have camptodactyly of the little finger, while others might just be holding their little finger in a weird position.

But the conclusion doesn’t really matter. I’m just in awe that someone can notice something so offbeat, and then pursue it right through to researching, writing and publishing a paper in a medical journal. That takes a serious degree of self-confidence in your own random thoughts. Brilliant!


This post was filed under: Health, , ,

The content of this site is copyright protected by a Creative Commons License, with some rights reserved. All trademarks, images and logos remain the property of their respective owners. The accuracy of information on this site is in no way guaranteed. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author. No responsibility can be accepted for any loss or damage caused by reliance on the information provided by this site. This site uses cookies - click here for more information.