1928 was a happy year for humanity as this was the year that a nondescript mould called Penicillium notatum was found to have antibacterial properties. This mould would prove to be the first in a long line of what we now know as antibiotics. Antibiotics are a group of drugs that kill bacteria for us either by interfering with their cell wall, mucking up their DNA or messing with their metabolic processes so they cease to function. Unfortunately they do not affect viruses.
Before the discovery of antibiotics people died from all sorts of minor complaints such as small infected skin wounds (before penicillin1 in 9 skin infections killed people), mild burn infections, tooth abscesses and infected insect stings. Unfortunately, according to a recently published World Health Organisation report (http://www.who.int/drugresistance/documents/surveillancereport/en/), that time could be returning as more and more bacteria are laughing in the face of the antibiotics we use.
The natural world uses a marvellous tool to adapt to changing circumstances. It is called natural selection and it is based on genetic diversity. This means that when a disease comes along it rarely kills everyone. Some people will be naturally resistant to it. They will survive and breed and, before you know it, most people will be resistant and the disease will no longer kill people. Unfortunately the same is true for bacteria and antibiotics. In any given bacterial population some bacteria will be resistant to a given antibiotic. Using that antibiotic will kill off the sensitive bacteria, leaving the resistant ones behind to proliferate. This activity can be accelerated by increasing the use of antibiotics, especially when they are prescribed for conditions that cannot be resolved by antibiotic use, such as the common cold or flu, both of which are viruses and completely unaffected by antibiotics.
If you are prescribed antibiotics, to delay the onset of resistance appearing, it is vital to take your full dose and complete the prescription, even if you feel better ahead of time. Otherwise you have not killed the bacteria but only wounded them, allowing them the opportunity to strike back bigger and better than before.
It is also important to practice effective preventative medicine to minimise the number of times that antibiotics are needed. An example of this is gonorrhoea. More than one million people are infected with gonorrhoea around the world every day. Resistance of this bacterium to all antibiotics is becoming more and more common. Prevention is simple and obvious. All it requires is a condom. Preventative measures for other diseases can include vaccination, washing your hands with soap and water, wearing your protective gear at work, not allowing your pets to stick their tongues down your throat, washing your hands with soap and water, observing good hygiene when preparing food, washing your hands with soap and water, and sticking with bottled water if you are uncertain of the quality of the water supply. Oh, and did I mention washing your hands with soap and water?
Dr. F. Bunny