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Global Health Thought Leadership

Singing about superbugs: the role of the arts in solving global health challenges

By CarriAyne Jones Parr, PhD, Head of UK Science and Innovation Network, Southeast US; Global Health and AMR Lead; British Consulate-General

As scientists, doctors, and public health leaders, we tend to approach challenges analytically. We arm ourselves with data and chart a path to a solution. Statistics, trends, risk-benefit analyses, and hypotheses are the language we understand, so they are the language we often speak to communicate with others. But as we have seen through the COVID-19 pandemic, there are those that do not speak this language. They hear noise where we find meaning. 

For many, the power is in story and anecdote and context. Quoting the number of deaths globally from a disease is far less personal than telling the story of your friend’s mother, fighting that disease right now with her family aching at her bedside. 

The onus is on those of us wishing to change policies or behaviours, who want to effect change on a large scale, to frame the challenges and solutions using language that resonates. We can’t just talk at them, we need to converse with them. 

To truly communicate, we need to harness the power of art, in all its forms, to tell the stories of science and health. 

It’s in this spirit that the UK Science and Innovation Network has partnered with the CDC Foundation to bring a Scottish musical, The Mold That Changed The World, to Atlanta and Washington DC. This musical tells the story of Sir Alexander Fleming and the discovery of penicillin in 1928: a scientific revelation that gave birth to modern medicine as we know it.  Yet, antibiotics are both the backbone and kryptonite of our healthcare systems, and the musical gives a lyrical warning about the human toll of superbugs, or antimicrobial resistance (AMR). One hundred years on from Fleming’s first discoveries, AMR is one of the biggest threats facing humanity, which effectively means that routine surgeries and treatable infections could once again sound the death knell for patients. 

This unique project combines a cast of professional London West End actors and dancers with a volunteer chorus of local scientists and healthcare professionals, who, in the sidelines of their lab and hospital jobs, perform as part of the show, giving them a platform to share their daily experiences, and creating credible community champions along the way. Interested in taking part? Chorus auditions are happening now!

The musical tour is particularly timely as the eyes of a post-pandemic world are turned to disease control and prevention. Using the mediums of art, drama, and song, we aim to leverage the current spotlight on global health to act as a conversation starter and a rallying moment for policy-makers, the healthcare community, and, importantly, the public. With AMR hitting the most vulnerable hardest, the arts can play a vital role in breaking the cycle of health inequity by starting these important health conversations on an accessible platform.

Ground-breaking new data published in The Lancet earlier this year shows AMR was directly responsible for an estimated 1.27 million deaths worldwide in 2019, and associated with an estimated 4.95 million deaths, more than HIV/AIDS or malaria. AMR is the 3rd leading underlying cause of death globally and the shocking truth is that it’s on an escalating trajectory. – But as COVID-19, climate change, and now AMR have established, we can’t just lead a conversation with data. We have to use the data to compel top-down action and combine that with bottom-up movements, like the one we are incubating with The Mold That Changed the World, providing impetus to change behaviours at all levels.

As the UK’s Special Envoy on Antimicrobial Resistance, Dame Sally Davies, states, 

“It is up to all of us to be leaders and activists on AMR. Educating ourselves and each other is the most effective route out of the AMR pandemic, and The Mold resonates with audiences to have a lasting impact on their behaviour. I dare anyone to see this musical and not feel compelled to act.” 

The musical is performing in Washington DC at Atlas Performing Arts Center on 18-23 October and in Atlanta at Science Gallery at Pullman Yards on 1-6 November 2022. Tickets and more information are available at www.moldthatchangedtheworld.com.

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The British Consulate-General is a partner of the Center for Global Health Innovation’s, Office of Health Equity and Crisis Coordination.

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