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Spreading awareness to stop resistance

Matilda Houston – Griffith Institute for Drug Discovery, Griffith University
Nabila Abdullahi – MacGregor State High School
Sophia Benedicto – MacGregor State High School
Muska Meya – MacGregor State High School

In the war against disease causing microbes such as bacteria, we have an arsenal of weapons like antibiotics to fight back against infections. However, microbes have been building defences and learning new tactics to evade our weapons. This phenomenon is called antimicrobial resistance (AMR) and it is creating super-microbes that are difficult to eliminate. When humans or animals are infected with super-microbes it can take longer for them to recover or have fatal complications.

The causes and effects of AMR in Australia are not well known, but globally, more than 1.2 million people die each year from drug-resistant infections. Australia also struggles with unique problems in the fight against AMR due to difficulties with the distribution and transport of vaccines and antibiotics over large distances and to people in remote locations. The solution to this problem requires a combination of strategies – research to investigate how and where these superbugs develop, changes to policy to reduce their prevalence, and new drugs to take them out.

Dr Kylie Hewson, Deputy Lead, Minimising Antimicrobial Resistance Mission, CSIRO, is on a mission to minimise AMR in Australia by coordinating research and advocating for changes in policy and human behaviour to reduce the impacts of AMR on people and animals. In the agricultural industry, limiting AMR infections in livestock decreases their risk of disease or death, in turn improving economic outputs. Similarly, in human health there are many social, health, and economic benefits of reducing infections that may affect an individual’s ability to work or socialise.

Dr Hewson believes that not having all the facts leads to poor policy which has negative effects for Australians and animals. That is why most of Dr Hewson’s work is centred on fact finding. One recent project involved a collaboration between CSIRO and the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE) to create a plan to tackle AMR in Australia and identify and fill gaps in our knowledge of this complex issue.

Dr Hewson is also persistent in spreading awareness on the causes and impacts of AMR, informing policy makers and tackling misinformation on this issue to improve health, social, and economic outcomes. For example, she wants to bust the myth that AMR is caused by the overuse of antibiotics in animals in Australia to promote best practice for vaccine and medication protocols in livestock.

Another area of discovery she is investigating is a potential link between heavy metals from mining runoff or in mineral supplements (e.g., Zinc supplements) that may exacerbate the evolution of super-microbes. Dr Hewson also researches the environmental impacts of antibiotic residue from wastewater run-off and how that affects wildlife and waterways so that new protocols can be put in place to protect our environment.

Dr Hewson has been honoured with many awards throughout her career for her advocacy and work in this sector. However, she believes that real world impacts are more important than any awards she has achieved saying, “seeing my research actually create change, there’s no better feeling.” An example of this includes an antimicrobial stewardship program that she developed in chicken husbandry that was later adopted by other sectors.

Dr Hewson also supports other researchers to generate real world change and achieve their goals through her company, Sativus. Sativus provides skills development to scientists so that they can translate their research, promoting research quality and accessibility as there is “no point doing great research if no one knows about it.” Through Sativus, Dr Hewson is helping scientists develop the skills that she wishes she had been taught earlier in her career. Dr Hewson says that “scientific skills are essential skills for life” and that a scientific pathway provides many opportunities. In her own career a scientific education allowed her to work in many fields before her current work at CSIRO.

The CSIRO Minimising AMR Mission has only just begun to explore the complexity of AMR in Australia. Dr Hewson hopes that over the next few years they will be able to get “research from the bench into the hands of those who need it” which is the driving force for her advocacy for awareness and accessibility.

Judges’ Feedback

“The story was well written and clear, explaining all the scientific elements along the way. It also clearly explained Dr Hewson’s role and how she fit into the story.

“I enjoyed the societal impact of the story, not only for individual health, but also the impact on livestock and agriculture as well.”