Antibiotics are the bedrock of modern medicine. For 70 years they’ve been at the forefront of our fight against infection.
But there’s growing concern that they are losing their effectiveness – and that if we’re not careful, we may be entering a new era where medical advances are in retreat.
The Tonight programme - on ITV at 7.30pm - investigates.
Professor Chris Butler, a South Wales GP and university academic, is quick to stress that for coughs and colds or any virus, antibiotics won’t work.
Yet a recent study he led reckoned that 1.6m unnecessary prescriptions were being handed out every year by GPs across Britain for illnesses they can’t possibly cure.
The worry is that by using antibiotics too much we are reducing their effectiveness. Since the manufacture of penicillin in 1943, antibiotics have saved millions of lives by combating infections. But there has been no new class of antibiotic developed for more than a quarter of a century. And bugs are battling back. Antibiotic resistance is responsible for around 25,000 deaths a year across Europe.
Tragic Sammy Fallon died of an MRSA-connected illness at the age of 17. Her mum Sue spoke to Tonight.
– Sue Fallon
The pharmaceutical companies need to do more research and try and find antibiotics that will fight these superbugs. And the doctors need to stop just giving people antibiotics for no reason because that's why we’re becoming immune to them. “
The programme looks at the international nature of the problem, and accompanies Professor Tim Walsh of Cardiff University in India as he takes samples of water from the Ganges River. He is looking for an enzyme called NDM1 which converts normal bacteria into antibiotic resistant bugs.
Russell Cronin was hit by a life-threatening NDM1 infection after being injured on a trip to India and ended up in a hospital isolation room for 11 weeks after returning to the UK. He lost part of his left arm but survived.
Dr Vanya Gant tells reporter Fiona Foster that he faces the superbug threat daily.
– Dr Vanya Gant, Infection Clinical Director at University College Hospital, London
There is a battle between man and bacteria without a doubt. I call it the silent war. We're seeing a gradual rise in not only the number of bugs that are resistant to antibiotics, but also that single bugs are turning out to be resistant to more and more of them.”
The programme meets cystic fibrosis suffer Tim Wotton who says that without antibiotics he was not expected to live beyond his teenage years – he’s now 42-years-old and a dad.
Novel scientific work at the John Innes Research Centre to look for antibiotic compounds in insect life and plants also features on the programme.
Chief Medical Officer for England, Dame Professor Sally Davies explains that if new antibiotics are not developed, routine surgery could be like playing Russian roulette - with many patients dying from infections.
She believes that the Pharmaceutical industry needs improved government incentives before they will spend the billions of pounds required to develop new antibiotics.