The first patient to be treated with penicillin was an English policeman called Albert Alexander.
The year was 1940.
While pruning roses in the garden of his pretty Oxfordshire cottage Albert scratched his face on a thorn.
A minor injury of no concern, surely?
But over subsequent days, his minor wound became infected – a terrible development.
Albert was admitted to the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford.
His condition deteriorated rapidly.
Within days his head and face were covered in abscesses.
Eventually one of his eyes had to be removed.
In desperation his doctors turned to penicillin, a new drug that had been effective in treating infections in mice.
Within 24 hours he was improving.
But the penicillin was so rare that supplies began to run out. In fact, continued treatment for Albert looked doubtful.
The medical team even tried extracting the penicillin from Albert’s urine so that it could be reused to eke out the supply.
Tragically, without the penicillin to continue treatment, Albert succumbed to his infection and died.
All because of his misadventure with a rose bush.
When the penicillin was available, he was getting better. When the antibiotic ran out, he died from what was originally a simple infection because there was no alternative.
The story of Anne Miller has a happier ending.
In March 1942, she was near death at New Haven Hospital suffering from a streptococcal infection.
She had been hospitalized for a month, often delirious with her temperature spiking to nearly 107.
Doctors tried everything available, including sulfa drugs, blood transfusions and surgery.
As she slipped in and out of consciousness, her desperate doctors obtained a tiny amount of what was still an obscure, experimental drug and injected her with it.
Her hospital chart, now at the Smithsonian Institution, registered a sharp overnight drop in temperature.
By the next day she was no longer delirious.
Albert Alexander was the first person to be treated by antibiotics. Mrs. Miller, the first patient ever saved by them. She would go on to live to the ripe old age of 90.
Their stories emphasise the difference antibiotics have made to modern life.
Penicillin would go on to save thousands of soldiers’ lives in WWII, and a total of 200 million lives, worldwide, according to the New World Encyclopaedia.
It shows a precious commodity effective antibiotics are. It also provides a shocking reminder of what is at stake.
That’s because there’s a dark cloud on the horizon, a problem the World Health Organisation warns is a serious threat to global health, food security and economic development.
It’s the rise of antimicrobial resistance. If this problem can’t be resolved, the public health implications for the future could be terrifying.
How bad could things get?
In the UK, the Independent Review on Antimicrobial Resistance produced its final report in 2016, with the following quote from David Cameron, former prime minister:
“If we fail to act, we are looking at an almost unthinkable scenario where antibiotics no longer work and we are cast back into the dark ages of medicine.”
If the rise of antibiotic resistance continues unchecked, tragedies like the story of Albert Alexander could well resurface.
It could become increasingly common for infections to occur that cannot be resolved by any available antibiotic.
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Associate Publisher, Southbank Investment Research