Will the rise of superbugs return us to a world without antibiotics? © Getty Images

Will the rise of superbugs return us to a world without antibiotics?

You might want to second guess hopping in that time machine...

Asked by: Dan Swain, Berkshire

Advertisement

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or ‘superbugs’, are certainly a serious problem. It takes 15 years for a new antibiotic to be developed and tested, but just 10 years of widespread use before bacteria resistant to that drug become common. No new classes of antibiotics have been found since 1984, and drug companies are less interested in looking for new ones because treatments for cancer and heart disease are more lucrative.

But things will never get as bad as they were before the world had antibiotics. Better hygiene and sanitation has vastly reduced the incidence of infectious diseases and helped to contain the spread of antibiotic-resistant strains. In Europe, 400,000 people a year are infected with superbugs, but only 25,000 (6 per cent) of these cases are fatal. This many deaths still sounds like a lot, but it’s tiny compared to the number that died before we had antibiotics, when half of all deaths were caused by pneumonia, flu, tuberculosis, gastrointestinal infection and diphtheria.

The superbug problem is serious and getting worse, but antibiotics still save a huge number of lives. In the future, we may need to move away from antibiotics altogether and use bacteria-killing viruses known as ‘phages’ to target the superbugs.


Advertisement

Subscribe to BBC Focus magazine for fascinating new Q&As every month and follow @sciencefocusQA on Twitter for your daily dose of fun facts.