Skip to content

OU on the BBC: Background Brief - Superbugs On The March: The Story So Far

Updated Tuesday, 8th August 2006

With superbugs able to survive antibiotics, are they here to stay? Find out more

This page was published over five years ago. Please be aware that due to the passage of time, the information provided on this page may be out of date or otherwise inaccurate, and any views or opinions expressed may no longer be relevant. Some technical elements such as audio-visual and interactive media may no longer work. For more detail, see our Archive and Deletion Policy


Newspaper headline Superbugs are bacteria which have become resistant to one or more antibiotics. This makes them much harder to treat, and there are now strains of bacteria which are virtually impervious to everything we can throw at them.


Incidences of these ultra-resiliant bacteria have increased in recent years, and the newspapers love to print headlines about "killer bugs" in our "third world hospitals".

But how serious is the threat really?

The discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming in 1928 was a medical milestone which is still pretty well unsurpassed for the impact it made on society. Until then, there had been no good drugs to treat bacterial infections, and even a scratch carried the terrifying potential to cause death. Not surprisingly, once the amazing curative power of penicillin was realised, researchers went into overdrive to search for other similar substances - with great results.


Pills being dispensed into bottle Over the decades, people have increasingly come to take antibiotics for granted. But while we’ve been relaxing in the belief that we can beat virtually any bacteria we like - some of the most powerful anti-human bacteria there are have been gaining strength against us. It shouldn’t be a surprise - Alexander Fleming himself predicted it would happen, it’s Darwinian evolution in action.


Remember that old ad for bleach "...kills 100% of bacteria - DEAD"? Well, antibiotics don’t have quite that sledgehammer effect. If they did, we wouldn’t have superbugs.

Any strain of bacteria will have random genetic mutations between individual bacteria - and any given antibiotic can only kill the majority of the bacteria, not all of them. Leaving the ones that do have this natural resistance to go forth and multiply...

And once the bacteria have acquired resistance they don’t keep it to themselves, they can pass it on to other bacteria in the same generation. Which means that resistance can spread extremely rapidly...

Medicine bottles ...AND WE’RE NOT HELPING
The more we use antibiotics, the faster the spread of resistance will be, that’s a simple fact. So the people who want to point a finger of blame have many targets nowadays.

- Doctors. For overprescription of antibiotics.
- Patients - for demanding antibiotics, and failing to take them properly.
- Non-organic farmers - for using them as "growth- promoters" for livestock.
- Pharmaceutical companies - for increasing supply of, and demand for, antibiotics.

Hospital nurse with mask on A RETURN TO THE VICTORIAN ERA?
Superbugs like MRSA present little danger to the majority of us. But they become very dangerous in a hospital environment. This is because of the close proximity of patients, and the fact that patients by definition often have lowered immunity to disease.

Superbugs can travel very quickly between individuals and can often escape detection and identification until it’s too late.....


The message we usually get from the media is that bacteria in general are deadly devils that must be wiped out wherever possible. But that’s not the case.
Our bodies are jam-packed with bugs - in fact 90% of the cells in your body belong to bacteria. Yes, 90%! Most of these are harmless and some are actually beneficial to our health. So it’s only a small proportion of bacteria that cause illness.

This is another reason to be careful with antibiotics - because if they can harm the dangerous organisms they can clearly pose a threat to the friendly ones as well.

And anyway - our immune systems are generally pretty good at fighting bacteria on their own. So often what’s needed is an antibiotic which can ’stun’ the bacteria for long enough to let the body develop its own sophisticated defences. But you have to stun them and keep stunning them at the right intervals - hence it’s important to do exactly what the label says regarding hours between taking the pills ...

First broadcast: Friday 15 Oct 1999 on BBC TWO





Related content (tags)

Copyright information

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?