‘Back to the future; life without effective antibiotics’
- I would like to begin by acknowledging the custodians of the land on which we meet today – the Ngunnawal people, and to pay my respects to their elders past and present.
- To the Directors and members of the National Press Club, members of the media, NPS members and partners and guests Thank you very much for the invitation to be here today.
This week as a nation we have remembered and honoured our diggers and the men and women who have given their lives in service for our country. I would ask you to take a moment now and cast your minds back to World War I – a time before antibiotics were discovered; a time not so long ago. Imagine if you will a young soldier on the battlefield, scrambling to get to back to the trenches. In his haste he trips and scrapes his elbow. He makes it back safely however, and feeling relieved, he washes the wound with some water and covers it up with a scrap of material he finds on the ground.
After a few days, the scratch becomes red and starts to hurt, the soldier feels feverish and his body starts to ache. The onset of nausea and headache makes life miserable for the soldier, so he seeks out a medic hoping for something to make him feel better. But there’s little the medic can do, the infection has set in and within a couple of days his young life slips away.
This story – and many like it – was common during World War I before the discovery of antibiotics. In conditions of poor sanitation with very few effective treatments, even an injury as minor as a scratch or a blistered toe could fast become life threatening for a soldier. You may not realise it, but it’s estimated around one third of the casualties from World War I were from infectious disease – that’s about 5 million deaths. Literally millions of lives lost to infections which, had we had the miracle of antibiotics, may have been avoided. But it wasn’t just on the battlefields where lives were being lost to bacterial infections.
Before antibiotics, hospitals around the world commonly dealt with patients who were seriously ill and at risk of death because of an infection, sometimes from something as simple as a scratched knee. Children who contracted tonsilitis while playing together in the playground often faced long hospital stays, and a bout of bacterial pneumonia came with a dire prognosis. Surgical procedures, particularly those involving the bowel, were risky and often resulted in complications or death from secondary infections. More often than not, the treatment in those days included ‘a few kind words’ rather than a therapeutic intervention.