Podcast: Germs: friend or foe?

Biology Research: Dr Emma Hayhurst

COVID-19 is accelerating the threat of antimicrobial resistance

The recent COVID-19 pandemic has (rightly) made us all much more aware of the risks of picking up infection. Hand sanitisers are selling out, and people are more wary than ever about touching contaminated surfaces or breathing in contaminated air. 

In the midst of a global pandemic, this behaviour is useful to try to slow the spread of infection. But what about the longer term consequences, when COVID-19 is gone?  I have spent a career trying to combat ‘germaphobia’ and as a mum to two young children, I am the first to allow my children to ‘eat a bit of dirt’. We humans do not need to live in sterile environments, and indeed we should not. Exposure to some germs helps us build a health immune system. 

The negative impacts of germaphobia are many. One is an increase in the use of plastic packaging (reversing a hard-fought campaign to reduce it – I noticed on my last food shop that all of the broccoli is now individually wrapped). Another is an increase in the use of household cleaning products and the negative impacts on the environment this will have. The psychological impact may be far reaching, too. Young kids taught not to cuddle in case they pass on the virus may be a lesson which proves difficult to forget.   

Another big concern is the impact of this pandemic on levels of antibiotic resistance. Infections caused by antibiotic resistant bacteria are much harder to treat and, before the COVID-19 pandemic, dealing with antibiotic resistance was a major global health priority. My research focuses on this very issue - understanding the reasons behind the increase in antibiotic resistance that we have seen in recent decades. 

We know that many things associated with the COVID-19 pandemic are likely to make the situation with antibiotic resistance worse – from the ‘worried well’ taking more antibiotics through to the increased use of cleaning products which can also drive an increase in antibiotic resistance. 

So here I am, in support of our germ-y friends. COVID-19 is a sobering reminder of the power of microbes to disrupt our lives. But we can’t banish them – they are everywhere, and we need them. They are part of what makes us human. So, when this is over - let’s cautiously welcome them back. 

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About Dr Emma Hayhurst

Dr Emma Hayhurst -Woman in Science

Dr Emma Hayhurst is a molecular microbiologist at the University of South Wales with expertise in anti-microbial resistance. She teaches on the Biological Sciences courses.

She is interested in the transmission and detection of antibiotic resistance in the environment and the clinic, and in the wider issue of reducing inappropriate prescriptions through improved diagnostics, public engagement and improvements in public health. 

Dr Hayhurst works in partnership with the water industry and the NHS. For the past few years she has been working on a translational research project to develop an affordable diagnostic device for urinary tract infections (UTIs).

You can see Dr Emma Hayhurst's research outputs here. To discuss collaborative or industrial research, please contact USW Exchange.

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