The 20th century was a time that brought great change in the world. Things were nothing then like what we take for granted today. During the American civil war more soldiers died from infection than died from bullets. Merely a small cut could cause an infection that would kill you.
Staphylococcus aureus and Streptococcus pyogenes took many lives before the discovery of antibiotics. Then in 1928, a bacteriologist named Alexander Fleming, in his haste to be off to vacation left a mess of culture plates in his lab. Upon his return he happened to notice in a Petri dish containing a bacterial culture, there was also a lump of something moldy. He observed that the area immediately around the mold was free of bacteria. This discovery led to in creation of penicillin.
However, Fleming didn’t realize what he had discovered and in 1929 attempted to present it as an antiseptic for cleaning surfaces. It was Australian born Howard Florey and Jewish refugee Ernst Chain that determined the discovery’s usefulness for human kind. Unfortunately it still took nearly a decade before the discovery was put to use.
Penicillin was first prescribed in the later part of the 1930’s, ushering in a new era for medicine. Due to the use of this new antibiotic, human life expectancy jumped eight years between 1944 and 1972. The wonder of this new drug was touted as eradicating infectious disease forever, but the original discoverer, Alexander Fleming, foresaw the future and made this statement;
“The greatest possibility of evil in self-medication is the use of too small doses so that instead of clearing up infection the microbes are educated to resist penicillin and a host of penicillin-fast organisms is bred out which can be passed to other individuals and from them to others until they reach someone who gets a septicaemia or pneumonia which penicillin cannot save.”
This seems to be the case, within four years of the introduction of penicillin, antibiotic resistant strains of these bacteria were being reported, but rather than developing new types of antibiotics, drug manufacturers were focusing their efforts elsewhere.
This allowed these bacteria to develop further resistance to the drug. No new antibiotic was developed until 199, when the development of Zyvox, a new class of antibiotics called Oxazolidinones was finally announced. It is claimed to be effective against multi-resistant strains of bacteria.
Now, due to over prescribing, and improper use, bacteria are nearly impervious to all know antibiotics. It has been estimated that no known antibiotic will have effect within the next few years. Treatment for infection is becoming more difficult and more expensive. Hospitals are becoming hotbeds for highly resistant pathogens and a visit to the hospital may as likely kill as cure. There is concern that post-antibiotic medicine will return us to the past with no means to fight disease.
Fortunately a new method is being developed, fighting bacteria with virus, in essence, disease to kill the bacteria. Near the end of the 2012 the biotech firm ContraFect Corporation, of Yonkers, N.Y., will test bacteriophages they are developing. These are viruses that infect bacteria and destroy them. It is hoped that these new developments will replace antibiotics of the past as a viable treatment for bacterial infection and allow modern medicine to continue curing us of our ills.