Science Deadline: Antibiotic priorities, freshwater discussion continues and environmental compliance overlooked
Issue 413, 03 Mar 2017
Top news from scimex.org the Science Media Centre's news-sharing platform.
New from the SMC
New from the SMC global network
WHO lists priority pathogens
The World Health Organization has released a list of the pathogens that urgently need research into new treatments.
The list includes 12 families of bacteria divided into three categories: critical, high and medium priority.
Among the critical group is Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which causes skin infections in humans. Some strains of this bacteria have been found to be resistant to many antibiotics.
Multi-drug resistant groups in the critical category can pose particular threats in hospitals, nursing homes, for patients reliant on ventilators and blood catheters, and for transplant patients or those in intensive care.
“This list is not meant to scare people about new superbugs,” said WHO assistant director-general Dr Marie-Paule Kieny. “It’s intended to signal research and development priorities to address urgent public health threats.”
“Antibiotic resistance is growing, and we are fast running out of treatment options. If we leave it to market forces alone, the new antibiotics we most urgently need are not going to be developed in time.”
University of Auckland microbiologist Dr Siouxsie Wiles told Newhub's AM Show the reason the WHO put the list together was to try to incentivise people and say "these are the things we need antibiotics for".
"You can have these superbugs even if you've never taken antibiotics before, and you can have them living up your nose and in your gut even if you're perfectly healthy...especially if you travel."
Dr Wiles has been screening fungi to try to find new options for antibiotics, including searching for treatments for three of the microbes on the WHO's list. "Loads of the ones that we use in the clinic, they originate in nature. They're things that microbes use to kill each other, so we're trying to find new ones."
University of Otago's Professor Kurt Krause said from a New Zealand perspective, "the most important members on this list would include Campylobacter, Streptococcus pneumoniae and Staphylococcus aureus".
"This country is generally quite fortunate concerning antibiotic resistance. Levels of antimicrobial resistance in New Zealand are, for most of the pathogens on the list, between three and 10-fold less than the most affected countries," he said.
"Although this is good news, it is important not to become complacent. Because of globalisation, antibiotic resistance of even the most severe nature can arrive at any airport or any port at any time."
"It goes without saying that we are behind in this struggle and the time for doing this work has to be now."
Quoted: NZ Herald
"If future climate change continues to be rapid, these types of events, along with mass deaths in heatwaves, could become more relevant in New Zealand as well."
University of Otago's Professor Nick Wilson
Freshwater chatter continues
A week after the Environment Minister announced a new freshwater policy, scientists are still unravelling the general confusion about what it all means.
A Listener editorial noted that while some aspects of the announcement were positive, such as compulsorily fencing stock from waterways, "what positive measures there are in the water clean-up plan have been spectacularly poorly communicated".
Writing on The Spinoff, University of Canterbury's Dr Jenny Webster-Brown tried to clarify some of the confusion around what was announced, including whether the standards actually were being shifted (not really, she says).
"It is important not to lose sight of the fact that many different factors affect how safe a water body is for swimming – not just E. coli," Dr Webster-Brown wrote. "High or low flow conditions, the presence of toxic algae, abundant algal growths (slime) or other irritating or unpleasant organisms, and high turbidity are just a few conditions that often preclude safe swimming."
"These may have little in common with the degree of E. coli contamination."
Similarly, Massey University's Professor Nigel French told Radio NZ's Nine to Noon it was important to remember current knowledge was based on models that might not show everything that's going on in rivers and lakes.
"The methods that we're using at the moment, to measure and monitor water quality, are relatively crude and they are based on a lot of extrapolations as to the relationship between the E. coli levels and the levels of diseases."
"Some of the key areas that we're looking at now are markers that will not only tell us whether there's faecal material in the water but actually where it's come from. So has it come from ruminants - from cattle, from sheep - has it come from human activity, has it come from wild birds. And then more importantly, how does that then relate to public health risk," he said.
While plenty of focus has been on E.coli as an indicator microbe, in lakes water quality can be greatly affected by cyanobacteria — blue-green algae.
Cawthron Institute senior scientist Dr Susie Wood said data on cyanobacteria was lacking for most NZ lakes and current swimming maps were largely based on modelled data. "For example, there is only data on cyanobacterial concentrations for three lakes in the entire South Island."
“This means that making accurate predictions of lake swimmability across New Zealand is extremely challenging."
Niwa chief scientist for freshwater and estuaries Dr John Quinn said that while the 90 per cent swimmability goal was possible, "it is a stretch goal".
"Harmful algal blooms are generally a more important risk to swimming than pathogens (disease-causing organisms, indicated by E. coli) in lakes, whereas pathogens are generally more important in rivers," he said.
"The risk to swimming from pathogens is expected to be more readily controlled than risk due to harmful algal blooms because pathogens input is mostly in more controllable surface flow pathways, pipes and livestock access to streams, whereas influences on harmful algal blooms from nutrients (particularly nitrogen that travels mainly via groundwater) and climate change effects will be more difficult to control."
Read an expert Q&A on toxic algal blooms in NZ.
Image: Planktonic cyanobacterial bloom in Lake Horowhenua. Susie Wood/Cawthron Institute.
More reading on freshwater issues from this week
- Radio NZ: Diving into the muddy water of 'swimmable' - Siouxsie Wiles and Jonathan Marshall
- StatsChat: This bit is even nerdier - Thomas Lumley
- Newshub special investigation:
Policy news & developments
1080 regulations: New regulations under the Resource Management Act will provide a national, rather than regional, approach to poisons like 1080 and brodifacoum.
Roadmap announced: Following consultation last year, the Government has released its conservation and environment science roadmap.
Stop littering campaign: A 'Do the Right Thing' initiative will be launched with the aim of changing behaviour to stop people littering.
Wider erosion control: Changes to Gisborne's Erosion Control Funding Programme will allow a wider range of measures to manage erosion in the region.
Boost for resilience: The Community Resilience Partnership Fund, which supports community-led wellbeing projects in Canterbury following the earthquakes, will receive a $6 million funding boost.
A new report from the Environmental Defence Society has highlighted weaknesses in compliance, monitoring and enforcement of NZ's environmental law.
Last Line of Defence was published this week, authored by EDS senior policy analyst Dr Marie Brown. Across different agencies, she found a range of concerning issues, including poor quality law, limited capacity and capability in agencies, politicised decision-making and a lack of audit and oversight.
“Concerning aspects include the presently weak resourcing for compliance in the Department of Conservation. District councils too appear to have little resource for this function and some, none at all,” Dr Brown said.
“If there’s no chance of environmental offenders being caught, there’s little incentive to obey the law.”
EDS chief executive Gary Taylor said “in our view environmental compliance is an important but overlooked stage of the policy cycle”. “This means environmental laws are often broken and the public is not able to trust regulators to do their job properly and follow that up.”
Dr Brown told the NZ Herald that many environmental laws revolve around “the last of the cash jobs – unlawful native timber harvesting, the poaching of crayfish and trout and whitebait”.
“What it says is we’ve got to invest in our frontline officers and give them the tools and the support to do their job, so you don’t have a ranger that’s never done a course in compliance wandering around on their own in the middle of nowhere encountering the Mongrel Mob – which is the kind of stuff that a lot of officers are facing.”
Ministry for the Environment chief executive Vicky Robertson said the report gave the ministry and other agencies a “useful independent perspective, highlighting what is being done well already and where we can raise the bar”
Hard copies of Last Line of Defence can be ordered from the EDS website.
Read a summary of news coverage of the report.
Upcoming media training
Applications are open for upcoming science media training workshops.
Science Media SAVVY - a two-day workshop aimed at researchers - heads to Dunedin in April. Applications are open from now until March 20.
Places in each workshop are limited to 12. Participants gain practical techniques to improve communication, deal with nerves and respond effectively when an interview becomes challenging.
Science Media SAVVY dates
• Dunedin: 20-21 April (apply)
• Auckland: 7-8 September
• Christchurch: 26-27 October
Video webinar and workshops
In March, the SMC will also be running a video webinar and workshops. Video producer and trainer Baz Caitcheon will show scientists what's possible with a smartphone, simple video editing software and a well thought-out concept and plan.
The workshops in Auckland and Wellington are free to attend but places are limited to 15 per location. Visit the SMC website for full details and to apply for a place in a workshop.
Ahead of the workshops, we'll also give researchers and communications managers the chance to hear from Fairfax Media and TVNZ about what works in the video format and how to use the medium to boost exposure for your research.
SAVVY video workshops
• Online: 15 March (webinar - RSVP)
• Auckland: 29 March (workshop - apply)
• Wellington: 31 March (workshop - apply)
More information about SAVVY workshops is available on our website.
New from Sciblogs - NZ's science blog network
Some of the highlights from this week's Sciblogs posts:
Robert Hickson showcases some of the diversity of autonomous (or nearly so) robots that have appeared over the last few years.
New research co-authored by NZ researchers suggests resurrecting extinct species will strain already tight conservation budgets.
A new study on sudden mass fatality events in New Zealand has found the occurence has declined over time, the University of Otago authors discuss their findings further.
Public Health Expert
United Nations University's Lorena Rivera León writes about her team's new research that found women scientists were more productive but rewarded less than their male counterparts.
Please see the SMC Events Calendar for more events and details.
• He Manawa Whenua: 5 March, Hamilton. An Indigenous Research Conference to explore the pool of Māori knowledge and research under the theme Mana Motuhake - Indigenous Sovereignty.
• Moral enhancement: 6 March, Dunedin. Hazem Zohny will discuss enhancement - biological or psychological - and a welfarist approach.
• Road less travelled: 7 March, Dunedin. A lecture to celebrate Professor Tim Stokes appointment to Professor of General Practice.
• West Antarctica: 7 March, Dunedin. Stop by Ombrellos after work for a discussion with Professor Christina Hulbe about the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and sea level rise.
• Scale of activism: 8 March, Christchurch. Graeme Wynn will discuss a forthcoming book on environmental protest and the challenges facing contemporary environmentalists.
• Sailing for survival: 8 March, Dunedin. Mary Mennis will discuss her experiences in Madang, Papua New Guinea and the culture of the locals' trading canoes and pots.
• Toothy evolution: 8 March, Dunedin. What do teeth reveal about mammal evolution - Dr Carolina Loch Santos da Silva will discuss recent research.
• Sea bathing for health: 9 March, Auckland. During the Meiji period, Japanese doctors sent their patients to the beach to bathe for health - Dr Ellen Nakamura will use it as an example for how traditional and modern met in the medical marketplace.
• On the origins of fitness: 10 March, Wellington. These days the benefits of fitness seem self-evident, but this talk will discuss the history of the United States and how a modern understanding of fitness evolved.
• You are getting sleepy: 10 March, Dunedin. What goes on when we sleep and why is it so important? Dr Celia Lie and Regina Hegemann will discuss the reality of sleep, or lack thereof.
• Your control centre: 11 March, Dunedin. Understand how the brain controls movement and why movement is impaired in motor disorders such as stroke.
• Mind over machines: 11 March, Dunedin. Previously the stuff of science fiction movies, using brain-machine interface as a means of helping us in our everyday life is becoming a reality. Hear about the science behind this.
• Disney's Inside Out: 12 March, Dunedin. Did the makers of Disney film Inside Out get it right? Watch the film then discuss with neuroscientists the science of the film and how accurate it is. See more events for Brain Week 2017.