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Topic: The germs strike back
The germs strike back
Picture: 1983-5236_DHA1025s1.jpg
Professor Alexander Fleming at work in his laboratory in St Mary’s Hospital.
Credit: NMPFT/Syndication International
The advent of penicillin meant that germs were no longer the most dangerous threat to life. In 1937 ten ti

This means that the colonies soon became ‘resistant’ to higher and higher doses of penicillin

mes as many people died of infectious diseases as of car accidents in Britain but by 1957 the numbers killed by germs and cars were roughly equal. The difference had been made by better antibiotics as well as better housing and nutrition – and more dangerous roads. Since then death rates from cars and germs have both halved.

Until the 1930s there were many treatments but few cures. The development of the family of medicines known as ‘sulphonamides’ in the 1930s – M&B 693 was a well known example – meant that diseases such as pneumonia and meningitis could be cured easily and quickly for the first time. The sulphonamides were followed quickly by the even more effective and much safer penicillin. Developed during the Second World War in Britain and America, its use spread quickly across the world. It was not pat
Picture: 10321551s1.jpg
German syphilis kit dating to about 1912.
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
ented and it could be made very cheaply. The disease syphilis, feared in the 1940s as AIDS would be later, was cured easily. As well as germs, antibiotics killed the blame culture so long associated with certain illnesses.

Penicillin only affects some bacteria. Many other antibiotics, such as streptomycin and tetracycline, were also developed. Mostly they too are extracted from the juices exuded by moulds and similar tiny organisms, which are grown and processed using technology similar to that developed for penicillin. The unusual bacteria which are not affected by the drugs spread quickly when the others were killed. This means that the colonies soon became ‘resistant’ to higher and higher doses of penicillin.

Picture: S02T07001s1.jpg
Leaflet, antibiotics, don’t wear them out.
Credit: Department of Health, HMSO
From the late 1950s drug companies began to develop new penicillins such as amoxicillin and methicillin,which were able to attack even resistant bacteria. Over time, however, germs resistant to these and other new antibiotics have become widespread.

Antibiotics work only for illnesses caused by bacteria. They have no effect on viruses. Some patients have abandoned courses of treatment before all the bacteria have been killed. Although the individual may have felt better, the stronger bacteria would have survived to breed and fill the place left by the weaker bacteria, and possibly to infect someone else in the community. Strains resistant to all penicillins developed from the early 1960s and Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA) is now a widely feared source of infection.

Today, doctors are forced to find a balance between the interests of the community, which would benefit from the use of antibiotics only in life-threatening contexts, and the interests of the individual, who can gamble that he or she would possibly benefit from getting a prescription for antibiotics.
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Topic section: Vaccination for the nation
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Using vaccines to control diseases caused by viruses has been extraordinarily successful, though sometimes disastrous and always controversial. Modern debates over MMR are only the latest stage in 200 years of disputes.  > more

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Topic section: Addiction on prescription
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Mind-altering substances have always been both popular and useful. Unfortunately, many such substances are also addictive. New cures for mental distress have appeared, but these cures may be addictive or have other shortcomings. Can we find mental relief with total confidence?  > more
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