We all have, sometime or the other, watched one of those epic productions on television based in 14th-19th century Europe. More often than not, there usually is reference to the Black Plague which wiped out almost half of Europe. Accurately so, the Black Plague wiped out an estimated 200 million people throughout the years, taking Europe about 150 years to recover from the catastrophe. The Black Plague only really came under control after the discovery of the first antibiotic compound, Penicillin, in 1928.
Since then, there were great and elaborate discoveries in the field of antibiotic design and production, giving rise to broad and narrow spectrum antibiotic drugs that worked against almost every bacterium that was being a nuisance. For a while there, the world was deemed safe from bacterial infections. We could now concentrate on bigger, more threatening diseases (insert malaria, cancer and human folly).
However, in the past 30 years, there has been no significant discovery in the field of antibiotic drug production. Unbeknown to most of the world, we are slipping back into a post-antibiotic era where once again, the Black Plague could become a reality. Through the constant misuse of antibiotics as well as environmental and genetic mutation cycles, bacteria that were once controllable have now become antibiotic resistant. This means that fewer and fewer drugs in the market are working against them.
Let’s now focus on how Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) is affecting Africa. In recent years, AMR has been on an upward trend and continues to rise steadily. In a continent where access and availability of drugs is still a problem, we stand a high risk of succumbing prematurely to what might be the next bacterial plague. In 2011, 78% of bacterial isolates responsible for bloody diarrhoea in about 18 countries were reported to have become resistant to the antibiotics used for its treatment. Continued outbreaks of cholera across the continent have led to the causing bacteria Vibrio Cholerae, gaining impressive resistance against Cotrimoxazole; the most readily available drug for Cholera in most countries.
Needless to say, Africa is fighting a losing battle against AMR. Being a continent situated mainly within the tropics, we are most susceptible to tropic associated bacteria. Furthermore, very little drug design and research happens in Africa, meaning that we have to wait for drug discovery to happen in the West. But why aren't we locally seeking solutions for the problems that plague us? Drug design is by no means an easy feat, but it is not impossible. We are churning out life science, pharmacology and medicine students out of our universities every day, but very few of them are venturing into the field of discovering solutions for the industries they serve.
Our problem lies primarily in the mentality that has been instilled in us through a rigid educational curriculum as well as in the systems that govern research and development. We are highly capable of engaging in the AMR war using locally sourced materials and technologies. It is about time we started looking at the future and began reinventing it before natural selection walks to the stage and forces Africa to take a bow.
*This is a guest post by Murugi Kagotho a member of TREK (Kenya), a science research group working in antimicrobial drug design and development. She is excited by all things genetics and spends most of her days staring at a laptop screen .
Reference Article: WHO Global Report on Surveillance: Antimicrobial Resistance (2014)