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We can be proud of the contribution Britain makes to global medicine

April 2020

With so much bad news around, it is easy to forget what an amazing country we live in; and that is especially true with regard to fighting disease.

Right now Oxford University is at the forefront of research on how to conquer coronavirus, and has already launched a new clinical trial for potential drug treatments.

If we have any doubt that a solution will eventually be found, just take a look at history.

Take smallpox for instance. This wasn’t a sudden new one-off pandemic; it was a dreadful contagious disease that existed throughout the centuries; it can even be found in ancient Egyptian mummies. The disease was spread between people, droplets on the breath or through contaminated objects - sounds familiar? It was a deadly disease; in 18th century Europe, for instance, it is estimated that around 400,000 people per year died from the disease.

When Edward Jenner was born in Gloucester in 1749, it is estimated that smallpox was killing around 10% of the British population, with the numbers as high as 20% in towns and cities.  

The idea of inoculation was not new, but after Jenner became a doctor he took an interest in this area of medicine and tested a new idea to stop smallpox using a viral disease he harvested from a cow. He tested his idea by injecting this into an eight year old boy who was then shown to be immune to smallpox. It was a major step forward and since then Edward Jenner is not only recognised as the pioneer of smallpox vaccination but also as the father of immunology.

Then there was the British baron, Joseph Lister. He was born in London in 1827, a time when large numbers of people died from infection, especially during any medical procedure. In those days it was generally believed infections especially in wounds came from bad air. Even in hospitals, hygiene wasn’t considered a major factor, opening windows to clear the air was far more important. Often facilities for washing hands or even a patient’s wounds were not available.  Joseph became a British surgeon and championed the life-saving use of carbolic acid as an antiseptic. He then continued to study post-operative infections and today, thanks to his research and ideas, he is recognised as a pioneer of antiseptic surgery.

Most of us will have heard of Alexander Fleming, born in Scotland in 1881. He became a leading biologist, physician and microbiologist and in 1928, while studying influenza, Alexander noticed that mould had accidently developed on a set of culture dishes he was using. Even more interesting, the mould had created a bacteria-free border around itself. After further experimentation, Fleming recognised the antibiotic aspects and named the active substance penicillin. Penicillin was hailed as a miracle drug thanks to its effectiveness in treating various infectious diseases and today it is still in use to treat certain problems.

There are many other great examples of how leading British researchers and microbiologists have led the way in finding cures and solutions for a wide range of problems. The scientists and researchers now working so hard in universities and laboratories across the UK are the modern tip of a long line of British experts who have made major contributions to global health.  

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