The Meandering Social Worker

wandering : wondering : learning

Rats, Lice & History

I love reading oldish books.  The delight of digging out the odd word, since fallen into disuse, from among the multi-clause sentences, peppered with colons and semi-colons, clauses and sub-clauses, and a smattering of commas to make it all work.  Instead of my eye flying over the page I pause to re-read and devour the grammatical intricacies of long ago.  OK, so some people think I’m mad.  That’s OK.

Often there is little value in reading old non-fiction books.  And Rats, Lice and History by Hans Zinsser (pub. Bantam) could have been one of those.  Written in 1935 its publication coincided with the production of the first antibiotics after Fleming discovered Penicillin and its message of caution about the terrible consequences of disease was soon lost.

Nearly 80 years on that message is once again on the agenda.  The BBC, celebrating 50 years of broadcasting, has teamed up with Nesta and the Technology Strategy Board to promote the Longitude Prize 2014.  The prize of £10 million could be won by someone (or a team) coming up with a solution to a modern day problem, of which six have been identified as possible contenders.  During May/June 2014 the British public have been able to vote for the issue they want to be tackled.  And one of the problems on the table is the rise of resistance to antibiotics – the others are Dementia: enabling independent lives; Flight: reducing environmental impact; Food: providing sustainable nutrition; Paralysis: restoring mobility; Water: creating safe, clean supplies.

In our modern word we have forgotten just what life was like before antibiotics.   Only a small number of people alive today remember those days, and most were children at the time.  But Rats, Lice and History tells the story in graphic detail.  If we don’t solve the antibiotics problem our history could soon become our future.  A history that included armies of 20,000 losing 15,000 soldiers to compared to 2,000 dying on the battlefield; plagues that could wipe out half or even three quarters of the population in a matter of weeks; losing limbs or suffering long periods of debilitating weakness, or dying slowly and in excruciating pain, from simple infections in a cut, burn or bite even.  Not to mention the death sentence that came with tuberculosis, malaria, smallpox and more.  Facing the horror of watching loved ones die a hideously painful death, lasting maybe only a few days or a couple of weeks, knowing the chances are you would soon be going through the same agonies yourself, each time with fewer left alive to care for the sick.

But as our memories of those times have faded so our society has become complacent.  From the time the antibiotic miracle was discovered through the to early 1990’s almost every year saw the introduction of a new antibiotic to the market, several in some years.  With privatisation and a focus on only developing drugs that bring a return on the research investment, this has dropped dramatically to just a handful of new antibiotics since 1994 (Wikipedia).  Already there is MRSA and strains of antibiotic resistant tuberculosis (TB) and malaria.  Modern research and antibiotic development is not keeping up with the bugs ability to develop resistance.  Which is why this problem has made it on to the Longitude Prize shortlist for 2014.

And the link to social work (this is after a loosely themed social work blog)?  In the event of any public disaster all social care and control agencies put in to effect their Disaster Planning schemes.  Social workers among them.  Perhaps those who have an input into those plans need to be including not just disasters caused by floods, crashes, accidents or crazed gunmen, but should also be acknowledging the increasing risk of disease epidemics.


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