Dr Chand Wattal completed his MBBS from Government Medical College, Srinagar, Kashmir and signed up for an MD in 1980. He joined the state medical services and served in the rural primary health centre as a doctor in Lar, Ganderbal district of Kashmir.
This is where he developed an interest for medical microbiology while treating patients with infectious diseases from abscesses to scabies.
“A person with hypertension, diabetes or stroke can never be cured completely, they can only be treated. But, infectious diseases (like pneumonia, tuberculosis, abscesses, osteomyelitis, meningitis etc), on the other hand, can be cured with timely diagnosis followed by proper treatment and medication,” he says.
But there were no specific medical courses available in India that time to train people in treating infectious diseases. He, therefore, decided to take up a course in medical microbiology (now clinical microbiology). “There are still no MD courses available in infectious diseases, except clinical microbiology,” he says.
Wattal joined PGIMER, Chandigarh, to pursue his MD, following which he did his senior residency and taught in a medical school as an associate professor. He later joined Sir Ganga Ram Hospital as honorary consultant and has been working there for 25 years now.
Microbiology is the study of microorganisms like bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi. As a subject, it has two specialisations – basic microbiology and clinical microbiology. Basic microbiologists work in different food industries and food processing units, vaccine manufacturing units, pharmaceuticals for manufacturing drugs, bioengineering, biotechnology and teaching in basic sciences colleges. Anyone with a non-medical degree (BSc, MSc or PhD) in biotechnology can become a basic microbiologist.
Those with an MBBS degree can become clinical microbiologists. Clinical microbiology deals with all microorganisms that cause human diseases. Specialists are equipped to work in any field where basic microbiologists work and additionally specialise in diagnosing infectious diseases.
So, how important is their role in healthcare? Recently, a patient (who had worked in a dairy farm) visited a neurosurgeon complaining of pain in his lower limbs. On examination, it was found that there was a lump in his lower back (lumbosacral region). He was referred to an orthopedic surgeon for further examination who diagnosed an infectious lump around the spinal cord. The patient was operated upon and the abscess was sent to the department of clinical microbiology for investigation, explains Wattal.
The patient was presumptively put on anti-tubercular treatment for possible tuberculosis of the spine whereas the reality was different. “The additional cultures and blood tests revealed that there was a different kind of bacteria causing this disease, and it turned out to be brucellosis (an infection caused by bacteria that is transmitted from animals to humans),” says Wattal.
This proved one thing. Without help from a professional clinical microbiologist, appropriate detection and treatment of any infectious disease is impossible for any doctor. As for future growth in the field, there will always be a requirement for microbiologists involved in public health, environmental monitoring, and in laboratory settings.