Scientist warns of disease disaster

July 13, 2001

Misplaced optimism in the 1970s that infectious diseases were under control is leading the United Kingdom to the brink of disaster, according to a report published this week by the Academy of Medical Sciences.

Medical microbiology departments have slowed to "a state of torpor" over the past 30 years, it says. A resurgence of diseases such as tuberculosis, new pathogens such as E.coli 0157 , escalating antibiotic resistance and an upsurge in food poisoning have shown this optimism to be misplaced.

Academic microbiology and infectious disease departments are not up to the challenge, according to Brian Spratt, a molecular microbiologist at Imperial College, London, who was asked by the AMS to investigate. "Over the past 20 years, they have almost stopped doing high-quality research," he says. This lack of interest has led to a shortage of trained clinical researchers.

Professor Spratt believes new technologies, such as the mapping of genomes of disease-causing bacteria, make the field exciting and vibrant. But he says: "Medical microbiology is bottom of the pile for medical students."

The report recommends that bacteriology and infection should be taught as a separate discipline to medical, dental and veterinary undergraduates. It calls for the establishment of interdisciplinary centres of excellence in microbiology and infection.

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