World Polio Day 2014

Polio Vaccination - World Polio Day 2014. Credit: UNICEF Ethiopia24 October is World Polio Day, an event that aims to raise awareness of the continuing threat of polio to children in some parts of the world. A global effort to eradicate the disease has been ongoing for 26 years, reducing the number of cases from over 350,000 in 1988 to 406 in 2013. Today, only three countries – Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria – have yet to eradicate the virus. However, in 2014, new cases of polio have also been documented in Iraq, Syria, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Somalia and Ethiopia – all countries that were previously polio-free. This reintroduction of the disease highlights that as long as a single person remains infected, polio can return. According to the World Health Organization, a renewed spread of polio could cause up to 200,000 new cases over the course of a decade and cost the global economy billions of dollars.

What is polio?
Polio is short for Poliomyelitis and is also known as infantile paralysis. It is an infectious disease caused by the three different types of poliovirus, which mainly infect children under 5 years of age. Polioviruses can live in an infected person’s faeces for several weeks and are transmitted mainly via the faecal-oral route, meaning that they can spread through water supplies and food in unsanitary conditions. Polio can also be spread through droplets from the sneezes and coughs of infected people.

Polioviruses first enter the body through the mouth, infecting the oral cavity and the digestive system. Polio can be completely asymptomatic, but if the virus spreads into the bloodstream and the central nervous system, paralysis can manifest itself in three different forms:

  • Spinal polio is the most common form of paralytic polio, causing paralysis of limbs within just a few days. The likelihood of developing paralysis, as well as its extent, increase with age: children usually suffer paralysis of one or both legs while adults are at higher risk of full quadriplegia.
  • Bulbar polio occurs if polioviruses infect the brain stem. Its symptoms include difficulty speaking, breathing and swallowing, and it can lead to acute encephalitis (inflammation of the brain). The infamous iron lung, which helps patients breathe, was widely used before vaccinations and technological innovations rendered this imposing machine obsolete.
  • Bulbospinal polio is a relatively rare combination of the above two types. Infection of the diaphragm and the nerve that drives it means that patients are left unable to breathe without assistance.

How can we eradicate polio?
There is no known cure for polio. However, several vaccines exist – the most widespread one of these is the oral polio vaccination (OPV), which is cheap, easy to administer and provides effective protection against the virus. In extremely rare cases (1 in 750,000) the attenuated virus in the vaccine can revert into a form that can cause paralysis, so some countries choose not to use it. Instead, they utilise the inactivated polio vaccine (IPV), which is administered via injections and was the first polio vaccine to be developed.

Polioviruses only infect humans and cannot survive for long in the environment outside a host. The disease can therefore be considered well and truly eradicated when every person at risk is vaccinated – but until then, even a single case has the potential to develop into a large outbreak.

What is left to do?
Polio remains endemic in just three countries (Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria), meaning that the virus occurs in the wild here. The few cases reported elsewhere are generally imported from the three endemic countries. Of the three strains of poliovirus, one has been completely eradicated.

India was considered the most difficult country to eliminate polio in due to its size, population and infrastructural challenges – but in January 2011, this important milestone was achieved. As a result of the successful worldwide vaccination campaign, 80% of the global population now live in countries that are polio-free and the number of polio cases has fallen by over 99% since 1988.

However, vaccination programmes are not without their difficulties. Over the past few years, scores of front-line vaccination workers have been murdered in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria. Many blame religious fundamentalist groups for the violence, and a number of these groups openly oppose vaccination campaigns.

Religious leaders are now being engaged to educate the population on the dangers of polio and the benefits of the vaccine. We can only hope that the world will be polio-free in the near future, preventing the suffering of many children.

Jon Fuhrmann

 Image Credit: UNICEF Ethiopia on Flickr under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
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Research Councils UK highlights initiatives to tackle antimicrobial resistance

Big BenYesterday, Research Councils UK (RCUK) – the partnership of the UK’s seven research councils – set out the initiatives they are taking to tackle the serious issue of antimicrobial resistance (AMR). RCUK was responding to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee’s recent report Ensuring access to working antimicrobials, which highlighted the need for ‘improved stewardship to extend the effective life of existing antimicrobials and increased innovation to develop new treatments.’

Responding to the Science and Technology Committee’s call for strategic coordinated action, RCUK highlighted that under the umbrella of the Antimicrobial Resistance Funder’s Forum (AMRFF), the research councils, along with other governmental bodies and charities, are now collaborating together to better support, coordinate and raise the profile of AMR research, both in the UK and internationally.

RCUK addressed a number of specific recommendations made in the Science and Technology Committee’s report, including the need to accelerate the delivery of diagnostic tools to limit and target the use of antibiotics, better collaboration between researchers working in the fields of animal and human AMR, and the need to address a lack of information on the environmental drivers of AMR.

RCUK agreed that Government focus on developing new economic models to promote the development of new antimicrobial drugs was essential, but highlighted that this still depends on there being a pipeline of potential new treatments, which requires basic research into resistance and increasing the identification of new antimicrobial sources.

Responding to criticism from the Science and Technology Committee about the lack of industry and learned society voices in the Government’s AMR High Level Steering Group, RCUK noted better engagement with industry, including the inclusion of the Technology Strategy Board in the AMRFF.

We at the Society for General Microbiology are pleased to see RCUK recognise the importance of collaborative work being undertaken between members of the AMRFF and the recently formed Learned Societies Partnership on AMR, of which the Society is a member.

Importantly, the AMRFF recognise that AMR can only be tackled through supporting and promoting multidisciplinary work in a number of key areas of research. These range from: basic research into the development and transmission of resistance; accelerating the development of new antibiotics and diagnostics for AMR through better funding; infrastructure and engagement between academia and industry; and increasing research into how human behaviour can both promote and inhibit AMR.

Paul Richards

You can read the Select Committee’s report on the Parliamentary website.
You can read RCUK’s response on the Parliamentary website.
The Department of Health have written their own response to the Select Committee report.

Image Credit: Mr G’s Travels on Flickr under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
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The right place at the right time: new bacterium navigates using Earth’s magnetic field

ResearchBlogging.orgMTB Title ImageMany migratory birds have a mysterious ability to return home with remarkable accuracy, even from halfway around the world. Since the invention of the compass some 2,000 years ago, humans have been able to emulate this, albeit on a limited scale. But the discovery that even microbes can navigate in a similar manner is relatively recent. It was only in 1975 that Richard Blakemore, of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts, described the first members of a small group of microbes we now know as magnetotactic bacteria (MTB). Their ability to sense the geomagnetic field and move accordingly is known as magnetotaxis.

Since 1975, a range of MTB have been discovered in several different branches of the tree of life. Besides magnetotaxis, the main thing they have in common is that they live in water and have flagella – whip-like appendages that they use to swim. Unlike birds and people, however, MTB do not use their inbuilt compass to move in a specific direction. In fact, they use magnetotaxis to avoid any north-south or east-west movement: MTB only move up or down within the body of water they live in. This is because they require very specific levels of oxygen concentration, which generally varies with water depth. Moving horizontally would quite simply be a waste of energy for these bacteria. Continue reading

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UK Fungus Day 2014

Fungus Day12 October 2014 is UK Fungus Day, held by the British Mycological Society to showcase the diversity and usefulness of fungi, and the benefits of mycology (the study of fungi). Many people equate fungi with mushrooms, but mushrooms are only the visible, above-ground part of certain types of fungi. The bulk of such a fungus’s volume is underground and consists of microscopic threads called hyphae, which can form huge, interconnected networks. This means that mushrooms some distance apart may well belong to the same fungal organism.

Like plants and animals, fungi belong to the domain Eukaryota, which contains all organisms whose cells contain a nucleus. Unlike other eukaryotes, however, the cell walls of fungi contain chitin, a chemical structure also found in the hard shells of many insects and crustaceans.

Fungi are found around the world, with some 100,000 species currently known to mycologists. However, it is estimated that several million different species exist worldwide, so there is plenty of scope for discovery. Fungal species can grow in the most inhospitable regions, including deserts, deep ocean seafloors, and severely irradiated ground; some can even survive the intense ultraviolet and cosmic radiation in outer space, as findings aboard the International Space Station have shown.

Until just a few decades ago, fungi were thought to be closely related to plants: they both grow in similar habitats and do not move, and many fungi have similar above-ground shapes as flowering plants. Since the advent of molecular methods, however, we know that plants and fungi became genetically separate about a billion years ago. In fact, fungi are more closely related to animals than to plants! Continue reading

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New to Science – October Edition

ECleanroom at the Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD, USAach month, the Society for General Microbiology publishes the International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology, which details newly discovered species of bacteria, fungi and protists. Here are a few of the new species that have been discovered, and the places they’ve been found. The full papers are available to journal subscribers, but the abstracts are free to read.

The harvesting season is slowly coming to a close in large parts of the northern hemisphere – incidentally, the word ‘harvest’ itself originates in the Old English hærfest, meaning ‘autumn’. Microbiologists, too, have been busy in recent weeks, and as preparations begin for various harvest and thanksgiving celebrations around the world, we are introduced to some intriguing new agriculturally themed species in the latest edition of IJSEM.

Any idyllic notions you may hold about farm work are quickly dispelled when it comes to microbiology. An American team, for example, identified Peptoniphilus stercorisuis in a sample from a storage tank containing swine manure. The bacterium is the first known member of a new taxonomic family, the Peptoniphilaceae. Continue reading

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86th Anniversary of Fleming’s Discovery of Penicillin, the first antibiotic

photoPenicillin, the first widely available antibiotic drug, was discovered by Sir Alexander Fleming 86 years ago today, on 28 September 1928. Upon its introduction into mainstream medicine in the 1940s, penicillin was hailed as a ‘miracle cure’. To this day, antibiotics are widely used to treat or prevent infections.

“One sometimes finds what one is not looking for”

Sir Alexander Fleming

Fleming’s discovery was coincidental: his laboratory at St. Mary’s Hospital in London was notoriously messy, and he often left uncovered petri dishes containing bacteria that he no longer needed on his worktop. Upon returning from a holiday in Suffolk, he found that an old dish containing Staphylococcus aureus bacteria had been contaminated by a fungus, Penicillium notatum. Wherever the fungus grew, it was surrounded by bacteria-free zones where Staphylococcus could not grow. Upon further investigation, Fleming found that the ‘mould juice’ he derived from P. notatum effectively killed many kinds of bacteria. We went to the Fleming Museum in London to learn more about his work and how he made his famous discovery; you can listen the podcast we recorded here.

It was not until 1939 that three researchers at Oxford University turned penicillin from mould juice into a life-saving drug. Two years later, a devastating fire in the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Boston became the first opportunity to test penicillin on a large scale: burn injuries and skin grafts are particularly susceptible to infection. Following the successful use of penicillin in the aftermath of the fire, the US government began to fund the mass production of the drug, which saved countless lives during World War II.

Fleming received his Knighthood in 1944 and a year later was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology, along with Howard Florey and Ernst Chain. In the same year, Sir Alexander became the first President of the Society for General Microbiology. Because the Nobel Prize can only be awarded to three people, Norman Heatley, the third Oxford pathologist instrumental in developing penicillin into a mass-produced, mainstream drug, missed out on the award. In 1990, partly to correct this oversight, he became the first non-medic to be awarded an honorary Doctorate of Medicine by Oxford University.

So how does this antibiotic actually work? Penicillin is a member of the β-lactam class of antibiotics and its chemical structure contains a ring of carbon and nitrogen that gives the class its name. Penicillin prevents bacteria from correctly building their cell wall, stopping them from dividing properly.

Antibiotic resistance was a problem even when penicillin was being developed. In fact, the first resistant bacterial strains were discovered before the drug was even available to the public. Alexander Fleming himself warned about the risks of antibiotic resistance in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Numerous derivatives and synthetic versions of penicillin have since been developed, and some of these, such as methicillin and amoxicillin, are widely used today.

Penicillin was the first of a great many antibiotics – over 100 have since been discovered. These drugs have saved innumerable lives, but there is a great need for new ones to be developed if we are to delay the threat of resistance and continue the legacy of Fleming, Florey, Chain and Heatley.

Jon Fuhrmann

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Microbe Talk: September 2014

William DallingerThe Reverend Dr William H Dallinger, is probably not a name you’re familiar with. However, he was an important figure in the history of early microbiology. We sent Ben to the Royal Society, to learn more about Dallinger’s life. Also this month, Ben spoke to Dr Jeanne Salje about her work on Scrub Typhus, a disease that is widespread in Southeast Asia.

Show notes:

Don’t forget, you can subscribe to Microbe Talk on iTunes. You can also find us on Stitcher.

Benjamin Thompson

Image Credit: Wellcome Images Licensed under CC BY 4.0
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