It is a year this weekend since I became ill with what turned out to be meningococcal meningitis. I have had it in my mind for the past few days, thinking back to how ill I felt, and the bleakness of the week or so before I got a proper diagnosis. I responded so quickly and strongly to the antibiotics that I received once I got to hospital – and here I am a year later, well and happy and relieved and healthy.
There were many people involved with the development of antibiotics back in the day, but the local guy who had a big role to play was Howard Florey. He was born here in Adelaide in 1898 and eventually went to the UK as a Rhodes scholar in the early 1920’s. Eventually he worked with Ernst Chain and others to develop penicillin as a viable medical treatment after the antibiotic properties of the mould were discovered by Alexander Fleming. Much of this work was done during WW2, and by the end of the war, the drug was available to treat people. My father was wounded in the chest in 1945 in Bougainville – there is no way he would have survived such a severe wound without penicillin, which, he said, you could almost see working on him. It must have been miraculous.
He has only started telling the story of what happened in recent years (thank goodness for a long life). He always talks about how much luck he had, and about the incredible contribution of his friend Alec Russell, who was alongside him when he was wounded, and who had the first aid kit on him at the time. He got immediate first aid as a consequence, after which Alec carried him out of the battle and to the medical post. Then there were the antibiotics. He remained very close friends with Alec until the latter died (way too young) in the 1970s. We kept in regular contact with his wife (Auntie Roma) till she died many years later.
Of course he and I are two of many millions of people who have been fortunate to experience first hand the incredible impact of Florey’s work. And I am talking about Florey as he has a local link, but this is not to forget not just those who developed the drugs, but all those who helped get the treatments out to people, diagnosed illnesses, helped folk who were in extremis, and made the difference to so many people along the way. There are stories everywhere of folk who have lived instead of dying from some bacterial infection or another. All sorts of infections and injuries that have been treated so simply since the advent of antibiotics, would kill people in earlier times. It is a blessing that cannot be taken for granted though, as the consequences are dire if bacteria become immune to the drugs we use to kill them. The moral of the story is, use antibiotics only when you need to, and use them correctly, so they continue to work into the future.