By Sharon Atieno

Though viruses have been known to cause diseases in human beings and animals, they could be the solution to fighting antimicrobial resistance (AMR) and averting 10 million deaths expected annually by 2050.

With the increased cases of antibiotics’ resistance, bacteriophages (phages) – virus that attack bacteria- could complement the use of antibiotics in treating bacterial infections, according to scientists at the first Kenyan symposium on Bacteriophages research which was convened by Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) and Institute of Primate Research (IPR).

“We have enough case studies that show us that these (phages) have been used successfully to treat extensively drug resistant infections in humans,” Dr. Lilian Musila , a principal scientist at KEMRI said.

Dr. Lilian Musila, at the symposium

She noted that unlike antibiotics which when taken kill all the bacteria in the gut including the good ones that are meant to keep the body healthy, phages target only specific bacteria that are causing infection.

Further, Dr. Musila stated that the bacteriophages are readily available in the environment anywhere there is bacteria and thus can be mixed with multidrug resistant strains and then those that can specifically kill the multidrug resistant bacteria can be isolated for use.

She revealed that about 150 phages isolated from samples collected from different parts of Nairobi including abattoirs, open sewers, rivers, hospital sewages among others, and from Lake Victoria and the Indian ocean, proved to be effective against four of the six World Health Organization (WHO) high priority pathogens (infection causing bacteria with high resistance to antibiotics).

These four include: klebsiella pneumoniae, acinetobacter bauminii, pseudomonas aeruginosa and enterobacter spp. These pathogens result in various infections including pneumonia, bloodstream infection, urinary tract infection, wound or surgical site infections, meningitis, skin and soft tissue infection, lower respiratory tract infection among others.

Dr. Atunga Nyachieo, Chief of research, IPR

In terms of capacity, Dr. Atunga Nyachieo, Chief of research, IPR said there are various phage labs across different institutions such as KEMRI, IPR, International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and even in some public universities.

He noted that the technology in the country was still at the laboratory stage where different groups have isolated phages.

However, through collaboration, Dr. Nyachieo said, “we should be able to do sequencing and to demonstrate that they do not carry anything toxic. That is the procedure before they can be applied.”

Phages were in use before the advent of antibiotics, with the first reported case being in 1921 to treat a certain kind of skin disease. In European countries like Belgium and Georgia, phages have been approved for use in treatment whereas in the United States of America, phages are used on a case by case basis when antibiotics have completely failed.

As such, Dr.  Peter Mwethera, Director IPR urged African governments to start coming up with legal frameworks so that when the technology is introduced, a legal framework will already be in place.