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Antibiotics Friday, 8 October, 1999, 17:31 GMT 18:31 UK
A brief history of antibiotics
Lab in 1950s
Antibiotics have transformed medicine, but the bugs are catching up
Antibiotics have revolutionised medical care in the 20th century, but in recent years bugs have been winning the battle against the medical profession.

Antibiotics
Penicillin was the first antibiotic, discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1929, but it was not until the early 1940s that its true potential was acknowledged and large scale fermentation processes were developed for the production of antibiotics.

They have been used to treat a wide variety of often dangerous illnesses caused by bacteria.

In the early years, new antibiotics were developed faster than bacteria developed resistance to them.

But the bugs have fast caught up. In the 1950s and 60s, many new classes of antibiotics were discovered.

But in the 1980s and 1990s, scientists have only managed to make improvements within classes.

The Standing Medical Advisory Committee's report, The Path of Least Resistance, published this week, says: "In the closing years of the century, there is an uneasy sense that micro-organisms are 'getting ahead' and that therapeutic options are narrowing."

Breeding

Some low-grade hospital bugs are now resistant to all antibiotics and several more dangerous ones can only be effectively treated by one or two antibiotics or antibacterial agents.

Chemist and antibiotics
Some low-grade hospital bugs are now resistant to all antibiotics
And hospitals are not the only breeding ground for these superbugs. Community homes and other places which are home to vulnerable groups of people have noted a marked rise in drug-resistant bugs.

Worldwide, a new drug-resistant strain of tuberculosis is causing concern, particularly as the disease is enjoying a resurgence.

Even if resistance to some antibiotics does not prevent treatment because others are available, it still costs money.

Patients may have to try several treatments to see which works and they may have to stay in hospital longer as a result.

Moreover, alternative drugs may be more expensive and have greater side effects.

See also:

23 Jun 98 | Health
08 Oct 99 | Antibiotics
28 Sep 99 | Health
13 Nov 98 | Antibiotics
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