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OpenLearn Live: 3rd March 2016

Updated Thursday 3rd March 2016

The superbugs that could destroy us all; the first decade of The Bottom Line - and then more free learning across the day.

OpenLearn Live brings free learning to your world. This page will be updated across the day.

Yesterday, we caught up with prosecutors, celebrated the genius of Tony Warren and caught up with Super Tuesday

See the complete collection of OpenLearn Live


Today's posts


World Book Day

... or Why Don't You Just Turn Off Your Internet-Connected Device And Go And Do Something Less Boring Instead Day.

You might want to mark the day by spending some time poking about in the RED - the Reading Experience Database, which collects references to reading from other written sources. For example, here's Virginia Woolf taking time out of her honeymoon to send Lytton Strachey a letter telling him what books she's been reading:

You can't think with what a fury we fall on printed matter, so long denied us by our own writing! I read 3 new novels in two days: Leonard waltzed through the Old Wives Tale like a kitten after its tail: after this giddy career I have now run full tilt into Crime et Chatiment, fifty pages before tea, and I see there are only 800; so I shall be through in no time. It is directly obvious that he [Dostoevsky] is the greatest writer ever born'

How did Holbrook Jackson find a passion for writing? A cheap book from a small market:

"As a teenager ... [Holbrook Jackson] had been transported from Merseyside to the South Sea Islands. The vessel that bore him was imagination in the form of a 'musty copy' of Herman Melville's Typee (1846), bought for 3d. from a second-hand bookstall by the Liverpool docks."

Katherine Mansfield discovering the value of James Joyce, again recorded by Virgina Woolf:

Wednesday 15 January 1941: 'Joyce is dead -- Joyce about a fortnight younger than I am. I remember Miss Weaver, in wool gloves, bringing Ulysses in type script to our tea table at Hogarth House [...] Would we devote our lives to printing it [at Hogarth Press]? [...] the pages reeled with indecency. I put it in the drawer of the inlaid cabinet. One day Katherine Mansfield came, & I had it out. She began to read, ridiculing: then suddenly said, But theres something in this: a scene that should figure I suppose in the history of literature.'

Explore the RED collection 

Try the related free course on the history of reading


The Bottom Line turns ten

Ten years ago, your correspondent would sometimes have to come in to the office on a Saturday morning, as a brand new series the OU was co-producing with the BBC, The Bottom Line, was sending through video material filmed the previous afternoon which we needed to edit and get online in time for a broadcast at Saturday teatime. Actually, it wasn't that bad - apart from how bloody creepy it is being on a near-empty university campus, you'd be surprised how quickly work progresses when there's nobody around.

We're still here - not that everyone's thrilled about that - and The Bottom Line is still going strong. And the OU is proud to have co-produced the series right across that decade. The format has changed a bit, and we've produced different types of material to support the programmes, but that fundamental 'Evan Davis with a boardroom view of the issues facing business' premise of the show hasn't changed. Except for the times Stephanie Flanders guest presented.

And there's a little bit more lead time now, so nobody has to work Saturday mornings.

Listen to the 10th Anniversary Special on iPlayer

Download the 10th Anniversary Special

Watch presenter Evan Davis's quick takes on everything from pizza to pedestrian crossings


Why we post

You might remember back on Monday's OLL we were talking about UCL's FutureLearn course Why We Post. There's an event related to the course happening over on FutureLearn's Twitter feed this afternoon:


Superweek: Superbugs

This week, we're exploring some "super" things. Yesterday, we took the lid off a beehive to discover the role of a honey super. Today, we're putting superbugs under the microscope.

Penicillin cures gonohorrea  sign from the 1940s Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: US Government ... but for how much longer?

This isn't, sadly, going to be about a mash-up between DC Comics and Warner Brothers, but if your tastes do run to extraordinary things about Bugs Bunny, you might want to direct your attention to question of why Bugs Bunny's accent becomes more rural the older he gets.

Instead, these Superbugs are bacteria developing antibiotic resistance. This isn't anything new - we first wrote about superbugs on OpenLearn back in 1999, which is oddly seven years before OpenLearn even existed. The problems we discussed then - that a lot of threats to health were developing antibiotic resistance - has got worse. We're still, as a species, overprescribing antibiotics, as the US Department of Health explains:

Here’s how that might happen. When used properly, antibiotics can help destroy disease-causing bacteria. But if you take an antibiotic when you have a viral infection like the flu, the drug won’t affect the viruses making you sick. Instead, it’ll destroy a wide variety of bacteria in your body, including some of the “good” bacteria that help you digest food, fight infection, and stay healthy. Bacteria that are tough enough to survive the drug will have a chance to grow and quickly multiply. These drug-resistant strains may even spread to other people.

Over time, if more and more people take antibiotics when not necessary, drug-resistant bacteria can continue to thrive and spread. They may even share their drug-resistant traits with other bacteria. Drugs may become less effective or not work at all against certain disease-causing bacteria.

“Bacterial infections that were treatable for decades are no longer responding to antibiotics, even the newer ones,” says Dr. Dennis Dixon, an NIH expert in bacterial and fungal diseases. Scientists have been trying to keep ahead of newly emerging drug-resistant bacteria by developing new drugs, but it’s a tough task.

In other words, we're using drugs when we're not that sick, and that's putting us at risk of getting really ill later on. The US CDC sounded concerns in 2013:

Last spring, the CDC sounded the alarm over drug resistance, highlighting three organisms whose threat was urgent: Clostridium difficile, which causes intestinal infections and kills 14,000 people annually; Neisseria gonorrhoeae,which causes gonorrhea, strains of which are resistant to any antibiotic; andcarbapenum-resistant Enterobacteriaceae, which causes bloodstream infections and kills 600 annually. The CDC report also highlighted a dozen other resistant bugs that it termed serious, and others of concern.

How has this happened? Well, if you're looking for a positive in the story, it does at least demonstrate how evolution works. Here's Kevin Wu explaining the science:

So, it's a major threat that could kill people, and yet we're still at the stage of not really doing much about it. In 2015, the NHS finally published guidance on antibiotic prescribing to try and stop doctors overprescribing drugs.

But with any other threat to life, you'd expect to see a lot more calls for something to be done, and yet year after year there's news stories about the dangers without much action as a result. Partly, this is because the news stories come year after year. As anyone who has seen Nightmare On Elm Street 5: The Dream Child will know, if you keep repeating the same thing over and over again, no matter how horrifying it seemed originally, the audience just becomes inured to the threat. Ironically, the general public has developed a resistance to being affected by stories about antibiotic resistance. But at least, slowly, medical use of antibiotics is falling.

The picture is also complicated because much antibiotic use is by animals, not humans. The Soil Assocation explains:

Farm animals account for almost two-thirds of all antibiotics used in 26 European countries and at least 50% of antibiotics worldwide. In the UK, on-farm antibiotic use accounts for nearly 45% of total usage.

These trends show no sign of slowing down. The overall use of antibiotics on UK farms increased by 18% between 2000 and 2010, whilst over the past five years on-farm use of antibiotics classed as ‘critically important’ in human medicine (modern cephalosporins and fluoroquinolones) increased by 35%.

This is in sharp contrast to the state of affairs in human medicine, where the use of these antibiotics has fallen steadily over the last 8 to 10 years.

So while persuading hard-pressed doctors to not automatically reach for the prescription pad is important, there's a far bigger task in persuading even harder-pressed farmers to change their methods. As the Soil Assocation points out, while the government has set a five year target for medical prescribing to reduce, there's no similar target to encourage the agricultural industry to wean themselves off antibiotics.

We might still find ourselves writing about superbugs on OpenLearn in another 17 years.

Try our free course extract on microbial resistance

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