We’ve “never had it so good”, said Tory Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in the 1950s and in at least one sense we have never had it so good. Few of us can remember a time when people could die from trivial injuries or infections which now respond to antibiotics. The World Health Organisation estimates that drugs like penicillin and streptomycin have added some 20 years to our life expectancy. And yet it could all go wrong.
Antibiotic-resistant bacteria, such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), are the problem that could end our complacency and make even routine operations hazardous. Already, hospital-acquired infections by MRSA and Clostridium difficile are a major difficulty (hence alcohol-based disinfectant gels in hospitals and hand-washing campaigns). In fact, a scarier problem is that of multidrug-resistant bacteria or “superbugs”. In the worst cases, bacteria may be resistant to all common antibiotics, as is the case with some strains of tuberculosis. Some 5000 people per year die in the UK because they are infected by resistant bacteria. In the US, some 2 million are infected each year, with 23000 deaths.