Protecting Antibiotics: Q&A with Ramanan Laxminarayan

Antibiotics have relegated life-threatening bacterial infections to our medical history books, or so think the vast majority of us. However, inappropriate antibiotic usage – for viral infections, in animal feed, in over-the-counter availability in some countries, and even over-treatment of some bacterial conditions – has also fueled the development of antibiotic resistance. This decrease in antibiotic efficacy coupled with the pharmaceutical companies’ slow development of new antibiotics are threatening our future fight against bacterial adversaries.

In his TEDMED 2014 talk, Ramanan Laxminarayan discusses how protecting antibiotics is a global issue and a worldwide responsibility, not one limited to a specific area of the world. He recently took the time from his busy schedule preparing for the CDC’s Get Smart About Antibiotics Week to answer a few follow-up questions:

What motivated you to speak at TEDMED?

I’ve been thinking about antibiotic resistance for nearly 20 years now, and have spoken about this problem and possible solutions to audiences ranging from clinicians, epidemiologists, hospital administrators, policymakers, economists, and even physicists.  But, the opportunity to reach a much wider audience through a format like TEDMED is rare and is probably better than even writing a book in terms of getting a message across.

Ramanan Laxminarayan on the TEDMED stage.  - Sandy Huffaker
Ramanan Laxminarayan on the TEDMED stage. – Sandy Huffaker

Why does this talk matter now? What impact do you hope the talk will have?

Like many others, I believe that we bear the responsibility of leaving the natural state of the planet in at least as good condition as it was in when we were first given responsibility for it.  I come to the problem of resistance from that perspective.  If we have fundamentally altered the microbial ecology of the planet, that is not very different from what we have done to the chemical composition of its air and water.  Antibiotics are amongst the most valuable natural resources we have been endowed with, and we have not recognized them as such.

What is the legacy that you want to leave?

Hopefully, my work has awakened, in a few people’s consciousness, the idea that we need a huge change in how we approach antibiotics.  If we are successful, then maybe in a few years, asking for an unnecessary course of antibiotics from your doctor will be the same as asking for a last drink for the road, or for a cigarette from a fellow passenger on an airplane.

Please share anything else you wish you could have included in your talk.

I would have loved to talk about my other passion: what it takes to deliver pediatric vaccines to 27 million children each year in India.  Fortunately, I had a chance to give a TEDx talk about this topic earlier this month. I’d also perhaps like to talk about the information structure of epidemics, if the TEDMED team ever makes the mistake of inviting me back.