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Paper Prepared for the Second International Conference on Global Impacts of Applied Microbiology, Ethiopia-1967

This paper was prepared for presentation at the Second Inter­national Conference on Global Impacts of Applied Microbiology but could not be presented due to unforeseen circumstances. Since it was the opinion of the committee that this paper “will make an important contribution to the working of the Conference”, it is being made available separately to interested microbiologists and public spirited individuals.

The INTERNATIONAL FOUNDATION OF MICROBIOLOGY has since been founded as a non-profit organization and is working to achieve its goals. Its membership is open to all microbiologists, biologists, teachers, administrators and members of the public.

Please direct inquiries to:

Dr. Riaz-ul Haque, Ph.D.



788 Prairie

Glen Ellyn, Illinois 60137

Providing Public Understanding of Microbiology

Through School Systems


Riaz-ul Haque, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor of Microbiology

University of Illinois at the Medical Center

Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A.

Dear Colleagues:

We have gathered here to seek solutions to some of the pressing problems of the developing countries where microbiological knowledge and its application would yield fruitful results. Some of us attending this conference are from the advanced nations and as such are here perhaps to provide advice or narrate the experiences gained in their countries where problems similar to those now facing the developing nations once existed or are still being tackled. The rest of us are from the developing nations and are here perhaps to seek the advice and then apply the suggested solutions to the problems back home. From this standpoint this is a very auspicious occasion as it hopes to provide an exchange of ideas and experiences.

My position in this conference is that of a participant who, although hails from one of the developing nations (Pakistan), has been studying and working in one of the advanced countries (U.S.A.) for the past 10 years. My interest in microbiology and the present state of its knowledge and trends in both countries has given me some insight into a very fundamental problem which must be tackled before microbiological principles can be applied to solve the problems currently facing the developing nations. This fundamental problem is the lack of understanding and appreciation of microbiology by the masses. It is becoming increasingly clear that mere application of the princ­iples, although once successfully applied in the advanced nations, is not going to yield fruitful results in the developing nations. My reason for making this statement is merely this: when the advanced nations were facing the problems now faced by the developing nations, the subject of microbiology was in its early era of exciting discoveries which were highly publicized. This inadvertent publicity aroused public interest and awareness which was the main reason for the successful application of the microbiological principles to the solutions of so many problems. Even in the more recent past, it was the public interest and motivation which led to the successful production of a vaccine against polio which ultimately resulted in bringing this disease under control.

This awareness of the role of microorganisms in human well being or illness is unfortunately missing from the public in the developing nations, and we cannot hope that it will automatically come about simply because the micro­biological discoveries which make the headlines now-a-days have nothing whatsoever to do with the problems facing the developing nations. We will have to seek some alternate and effective mechanisms to motivate the public and to provide the needed awareness.

The general belief that such awareness is being provided in the developing countries through courses of hygiene in the high schools is a misconception and a gross oversimplification of the problem. It is true that there exists an elec­tive subject on the curricula of many high schools which is designated as hygiene but what it includes and teaches is doing more harm than good. I will quote here the situation in one of the developing countries where hygiene is taught as an elective subject. The prescribed book which is currently enjoying the approval of the Board of Education was written by a person who had no knowledge whatsoever of the role of microorganisms in infectious diseases or any other microbiological processes. Reading that book is like reading about “Miasmas”. I must add that this book is now in its fifth edition and each edition is a reprint rather than a revision. The following two quotations taken from this book will illustrate its contents: “germs originate in dark humid and dirty places and one must stay away from dark, humid and dirty places”; “tetanus is a disease of children in which the primary requirement is the presence of a wound and receive their oxygen requirements from air which easily seeps through the holes present in the wound”.

Such gross misconceptions do much harm. People feel that germs are some­thing associated only with dirt and filth. Such “informed” people do not touch dirt and filth and feel that they are protected. But when despite their cautious actions they get sick, they have no other alternative but to put the blame on Divinity.

We must attempt to replace such misconceptions with facts. We must tell them why, when, and how to avoid certain contacts so that the chain of communi­cation of the infectious agent is broken. We must tell them that the organisms of many diseases are carried by human beings and we must develop the subject logically. This we must do before we can expect to achieve public cooperation without which all programs designed to eradicate diseases, to improve soil fertility or to preserve food are bound to encounter stumbling blocks of resistance and apathy and will ultimately fail.

I have stated earlier that the public awareness of microorganisms in the advanced nations was instrumental in solving many problems. I must clarify, however, that this awareness is progressively declining. Part of the reason for this decline has been the dramatic successes against disease which unfor­tunately perpetuated a false sense of “victory” not only among the public but also among the persons involved in the health professions. This has unfortu­nately led to a pre-matured closing of the chapter on the importance of funda­mental microbiology in many advanced nations. The interest of microbiologists in such countries is slowly but surely shifting to basic research in the areas of microbial genetics, molecular biology, immuno-biology, immunochemistry and the like subjects. I can certainly sympathize with this change of interest and am not implying that it is undesirable. What I am implying and wish to stress, however, is that this change is being encouraged at the expense of teaching fundamental aspects of microbiology in colleges and even in an increas­ing number of medical schools. The consequences of this disregard are very sad and are already beginning to reflect in the form of apathy and disinterest towards microbiology and all that it stands for or hopes to accomplish through its application. Local and national health agencies in these countries are,

Therefore, facing renewed problems. They are experiencing progressively increas­ing difficulties in administering vaccinations and maintenance of reasonable levels of immunity through booster injections. The masses, especially the dis­advantaged groups and those who have been forced by economic necessity to come to the urban areas, are creating additional problems for the health agencies. They frequently fail to seek proper care and guidance and treatment in time, and since they pay no regard to the possible transmission of the disease to their contacts they end up perpetuating respiratory, enteric and skin infections. And since they do not understand even the very ruidments of the rationale of antibiotic therapy, they do not follow prescribed instructions for the medication. Such discrepancies can lead to the development of late sequelae of streptococcal infections and it is feared that rheumatic fever may increase among such groups.

The prevalence of such attitudes in some of the advanced countries clearly points out that a proper awareness of the involvement of microorganisms in human welfare has to be provided to the public not in the developing countries only but in the advanced nations as well. It should, therefore, be provided to all people.

The question which I should now like to raise is how should one go about providing the needed public awareness of microbiology? In attempting to answer this question, first of all I must stress that it is a monumental task and that it should be viewed as such. Secondly, I must stress that this task can be much simplified providing that the public is first made aware of the reality and viability of microorganisms and then led through sequential discussions to appreciate the involvement of microorganisms in human affairs.

A group of us have been personally presenting such a program for the past one year in Chicago to various young and adult groups and have been determining its effectiveness. The program generally begins by first determining the state of microbiological awareness of the participants and one question which tells more about this facet than any other questions is an inquiry into the size of micro­organisms. We have frequently received answers like “they are just too small”; you almost cannot see them but if one looked hard enough one perhaps can find them”; “they are half the size of an ant”; “they are not as big as the head of a pin but probably are as big as the point of a pin”. We generally clarify this point by mentally making them divide an inch into 25,000 equal parts in a stepwise fashion. From here on we pursue the question of the ubiquity and the viability and settle it by showing live microorganisms from their oral cavities under a phase contrast microscope. This demonstration leaves a very lasting impression on the participants. After this we do not have to give them any lecture because the demonstrations had already aroused such a curiosity that we simply answer to their logical and thoughtful questions and lead the discussion to cover reservoirs of infection, transmissibility, dose, incubation periods, suscepti­bility, disease, preventive measures, vaccines, therapy, and like subjects. It is very easy to stress oral hygiene and we have been able to convert many a youngsters to regular and proper brushing of their teeth.

Although the program stresses the disease producing capacities of the organisms, we never like to leave our groups with the impression that all micro­organisms are harmful. We emphasize the beneficial activities of the microorganisms also and thus give to the participants a balanced and meaningful concept of the role of microorganisms in their overall well being.

While the above program is being conducted in Chicago, as a pilot project, our eventual goal is to introduce the teaching of fundamental aspects of microbiology as a compulsory subject in the primary and secondary schools at various levels of learning. Similar efforts will have to be undertaken on a worldwide basis. This would require the establishment of adequate curricula, training of teachers, and writing of text books in the various major languages of the world.

In order to fulfill these requirements, the proposed program is divided into three phases. Phase I should concern with the procurement of microbiolo­gists and the writing of text books in the local languages of the various countries. Phase 2 should include teaching microbiology in the teachers training colleges and providing simple but adequate equipment in the schools. Phase 3 will include the actual teaching of microbiology as a compulsory sub­ject to 4th, 8th, and 10th grade students. A list of concepts which can be imparted at these levels of learning is given below:

4th-grade: Concept of smallness; existence of microorganisms, observe oral flora through inexpensive and simple to operate phase microscope; role of microorganisms in personal hygiene; disease producing vs. non-disease producing microorganisms and how to cope with them; vaccination.

8th grade: various groups of microorganisms; their distribution in nature; associations with man and animals; trans­mission, infection and disease; host parasite rela­tionships; disinfection and antisepsis; antibiotics; control of microorganisms in the home; prevention of prevalent infectious diseases; infection and immunity and active and passive protection; vaccination; food preservation; home canning and its pros and cons; home refrigerators and freezers and their use.

10th grade: Basic structure of microorganisms; their classification and identification; growth and death of microorganisms; air, water, sewage and industrial microbiology; exploi­tation of microorganisms for the benefit of man; role of microorganisms in the cycle of elements and matter; microorganisms in agriculture; mushrooms and other fungi as food for man and animals; national food supply vs. population.

The above division of the material is based on the educational system of most countries. It is designed so that the least educated individual who, especially in the Asian countries, may not proceed towards further schooling, could get some idea of the reality of microorganisms and their role in his well being. The individual who may be able to proceed further towards middle or high school education would build on the fundamentals learned in the 4th grade.

Simultaneously with this program, provisions must also be made to acquaint the adult population with the same principles through special lectures and demonstrations. Necessary help from the press and other communication media must also be procured for this purpose. Otherwise the lessons brought home by the youngsters from schools will meet with orthodox resistance.

The next question that we shall now look into is who shall look after this program? My proposal to this learned gathering is that we shall initiate a new organization of microbiologists for this purpose. This I am requesting because the task calls for a concentrated and unified effort which can only be provided through an organization designed to do just that. Assigning the proposed task to any one or all of the existing agencies is not desirable simply because such agencies are already involved in many important activities and it will be unrealistic for us to expect them to undertake the proposed additional activities. Such assignments and undertakings in the past have not been fruit­ful and will not be fruitful in the future. Many societies of microbiology profess to have educational committees but since educational activities are not the primary concern of these societies, the request of the committees almost never receive their due priority. A new organization of microbiologists shar­ing similar interests will not have this drawback. Furthermore, it will not only get the job done now but will also ensure its continuation to the newer generations of mankind. Otherwise the ground gained in one generation will be lost in the succeedirg generation. Since we expect to have 7.5 billion people inhabiting this globe in the next 25 years, the very thought of losing touch with them is frightening.

I have been told that the proposed task requires millions of dollars for its fulfillment. Although this may be true, I must add that the tasks that must be done should never be weighed in terms of monetary units but in terms of their urgency and alternate means must be found to get them done. What the proposed task needs is not a lot of dollars but a lot of dedicated and motivated micro­biologists, administrators, and public spirited individuals. Efforts must be made to enlist their support and to provide them with centralized guidance through the head office of the proposed organization.

And now a final question. What shall we call this organization? I have taken the liberty of proposing a name for it and have preferred to call it the INTERNATIONAL FOUNDATION OF MICROBIOLOGY. The reason for calling it a Foundation is that this organization will dispense knowledge which is equally, if not more, as valuable as dispensing money. And the good part of this is that we do not have to be discriminating; we can dispense it to everybody.