What is antibiotic resistance?
Antibiotics are medicines used to prevent and treat some types of bacterial infections and are necessary to safely perform surgical procedures.
Antibiotic resistance happens when bacteria mutate and become resistant to the antibiotics used to treat the infection they caused. The more antibiotics are used, the more chance there is for bacteria to develop resistance.
At least 700,000 people per year world-wide die from antibiotic resistant infections. Due to the increasing over use of antibiotics this could rise to 10 million per year globally by 2050, exceeding cancer.
New drugs to prevent this can take up to 15 years and cost hundreds of millions of pounds to develop. Because of this no new classes of antibiotics have been introduced into clinic use in the last 30 years.
Why we can't take antibiotics for granted
“For so long we have taken antibiotics for granted. But the first was only discovered in 1928 when a research assistant, Merlin Pryce, drew Alexander Fleming’s attention to the way that mould in a neglected culture was killing surrounding bacteria. Fleming published the findings. Later, Florey identified the active agent, penicillin, and we entered the age of antibiotics.
“Since then chemists and biologists have developed a succession of antibiotics, which until recently have served us well and saved countless lives. But nature never stands still and as new antibiotics are put to work strains of microbes that are resistant to them inevitably emerge – sometimes we see them even before the antibiotics are used clinically. All very clever on the part of microbes, but a big problem for us humans.”
– Professor Mathew Upton
Professor in Medical Microbiology, Plymouth Institute of Health and Care Research
Lead for the Antibiotic Resistant Pathogens Research Group
The end of antibiotics?
Antibiotics are now no longer routinely used to treat infections because:
- many infections are caused by viruses, so antibiotics are not effective
- antibiotics are often unlikely to speed up the healing process and can cause side effects
- the more antibiotics are used to treat trivial conditions, the more likely they are to become ineffective for treating more serious conditions
Both the NHS and health organisations across the world are trying to reduce the use of antibiotics, especially for health problems that are not serious, such as chest infections, ear infections in children and sore throats.