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Understanding antibiotic resistance
Understanding antibiotic resistance

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4 Modern times

Since their introduction in the 1930s, antibiotics have saved millions of lives (Figure 3). Once-deadly diseases such as pneumonia and TB are now treatable and everyday infections and minor injuries are no longer potentially life-threatening.

Described image
Figure 3 Effect of antibiotics on death rates in England and Wales between 1931 and 1957 from (a) childbirth-related infection (puerperal fever) and (b) all infectious diseases. Data from Barber (1960). (The arrows indicate when specific antibiotics were introduced.)

Antibiotics are used extensively in medicine, for example to improve the survival rates of transplant and cancer patients, or for antibiotic prophylaxis, that is they are taken before routine surgical procedures to prevent infection. They are also used in dentistry and veterinary medicine, for agriculture and for many other non-therapeutic purposes. You will learn more about how antibiotics are used in Week 5.

Unfortunately, antibiotics are no longer the ‘magic bullets’ they once were. Our over-reliance on these drugs to prevent and/or treat a range of infections in both humans and animals, and for multiple other purposes, has left many antibiotics powerless as bacteria become resistant to them.

Antibiotic resistance can develop naturally in bacteria. However, the widespread use of antibiotics increases the selective pressure on bacteria to adapt and survive – that is, to develop resistance. You will learn more about this Weeks 4 and 5.

It is no coincidence that as antibiotic use has risen, so too has antibiotic resistance. For example, between 2000 and 2010, total global antibiotic consumption increased by over 30%, although there were country and regional variations (CDDEP, 2015).