At a Delhi exhibition, superbugs and the end of antibiotics
Want to understand why doctors ask you not to pop an antibiotic every time you get a cold? A visit to the National Science Museum near Pragati Maidan will be a good start.
A travelling exhibition called ‘Superbugs: The end of Antibiotics?’ takes people on a journey of how antibiotics were discovered not even 100 years ago, how minor infections were killers before penicillin was accidentally discovered by Alexander Fleming, and what are the newer substitutes scientists are researching.
“Everyone has heard about antibiotic resistance, this exhibition hopes to help them understand the magnitude of the problem. It shows how people with resistant infections have to be on treatment for years and in some cases none of the antibiotics work, plunging us into a pre-antibiotic era,” said N Ramdas Iyer, curator at the National Science Museum in Delhi and one of the persons who curated this exhibition in India.
The exhibition begins with helping people understand just how small the bacteria are that we use antibiotics against. The display zooms in into a patch of scalp of one of the four people standing in front of Taj Mahal and dives deeper to show the skin cells, the red blood cells, and the smaller bacteria and viruses, and the yet smaller amino acids that are the building block of living organisms.
People visiting the exhibition will also be able to see samples of the most common bacteria through a magnifying glass.
The exhibition then goes on to tell the story of how Alexander Fleming discovered that a mould growing on his bacteria sample could actually kill it. A sample grown from the original mould found by Fleming has been loaned to the museum by the Science Museum Group. There is also a recording of Fleming’s voice where one can hear him talking about antibiotic resistance through an old telephone earpiece. He had predicted the rise of superbugs as early as 1945, when he had received a Nobel Prize for the discovery of penicillin.
The exhibition next tells the story of Albert Alexander who was the first person to receive penicillin for the treatment of sepsis and was almost saved. Next it shows people how the mass production started during the World War II and then to the first antibiotic plant set up in India in Pune in 1956.
From then on, the exhibition takes a turn to show how superbugs are created because of the transfer of resistant genes among bacteria and the extensive use of antibiotics accelerating the process. If the superbugs do mark the end of antibiotics, the other options like bacteriophage (a virus that can infect bacteria and kill it) and Teixobactin (a new type of antibiotic that destroys the bacterial DNA while killing it) are things scientists are working on, the exhibition shows.
After the end of the microscopic section of the exhibition, there are stories of tuberculosis patients, nurses, doctors, pharmacists, chicken farmers, and activists talking about their perspective and work on antibiotic resistance. Then, it shows the global map of resistance and what is being done to preserve antibiotics.
The exhibition ends with a quiz to see how much people have understood about superbugs and the challenge of antibiotic resistance. There are experts from the Indian Council of Medical Research and other top science organisations answering questions at a console too.
The exhibition will end in Delhi after the World Antibiotic Awareness Week between 18 and 24 November. It will then travel to Mumbai, Kolkata, and Bengaluru during the first year and then to Tier-II cities where the National Council of Science Museum has its own facilities.
Although designed completely in India, the exhibition is a part of the global tour of the superbugs exhibition showcased by the Science Museum Group in London.
“We decided to curate the exhibition on our own with Indian context, with doctors and nurses from India talking about their experience, looking at diseases like Tuberculosis that is a problem for India,” said Iyer.