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The Drugs Don’t Work – Sally C. Davies ****

This is a Penguin Special, a deliberately slim book that gets across a single point with devastating effect. Sally Davies (I really can’t call her ‘Professor Dame’ like the cover does - it makes her sound like a character from a pantomime) ought to know what she’s talking about when it comes to antibiotics, as she is the Chief Medical Officer for England.
We start with a stark little story of life in the 2040s when all the antibiotics have failed and even what appears to be a harmless throat infection could result in isolation and death. Davies then takes us swiftly through the history of antibiotics and the various nasties we have to face up against.
In case it’s not obvious by now, the theme is that our over-use of antibiotics is resulting in growing resistance building up in more and more diseases. At the same time, there really isn’t a lot of work going into the next generation of drugs, as it isn’t a hugely profitable thing for pharma companies to do.
Left with only the current facts we are presented with a dire situation, particularly for the next generations. However, Davies does come up with a range of possibilities for making things better, from the simplest aspects like washing our hands more effectively through to means to encourage production of the next generation of antibiotics. The trouble is, these positive bits seem to me to be primarily filled with the optimism of the scientific professional, rather than a reflection of the political reality. Specifically, I think unless we see Bill Gates and his equivalents pouring vast amounts into the research we won’t get very far until things start going horribly wrong. For instance, the use of antibiotics in animal rearing should be clamped down on at draconian levels worldwide, but politicians have fudged it again and again.
But whether or not you take solace from the practical suggestions, and the rosier picture of the future the book finishes with, there is no doubt that this is a highly important message that, for a start, every MP and GP should be reading. And wash your hands. Right now.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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