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Jeremy Laurance: The antibiotic era has put millions of lives at risk

When bacteria find a way around our defences, we should start to worry

The two new superbugs revealed by scientists yesterday – a new strain of MRSA and a new strain of E.coli, both resistant to antibiotics – highlight humanity's ongoing battle against infection-causing microbes.

Bacteria, like all living organisms, are programmed to survive. They are continually mutating, evolving and swapping genes. Chance mutations that confer an advantage, such as resistance to antibiotics, are naturally selected and the mutant strains then grow and multiply, posing new threats to human health.

When bacteria find a way around the defences we have erected against them, by evolving protection against the antibiotic drugs we use to destroy them, we should start to worry. Although deaths have declined, thanks to better hygiene in NHS hospitals, the global overuse of antibiotics continues so indiscriminately that the planet is now bathed in a dilute solution of them. This is not merely wasteful but places the lives of millions at risk.

The antibiotic era began with the discovery of penicillin and almost conquered infectious disease. Almost – but not quite. The emergence of multi-drug resistance has demonstrated that no antibiotic can be effective for long. The bugs will always find a mechanism to resist them.

The simultaneous identification of two new superbugs should serve as an alarm call. Overuse of antibiotics for the past 60 years has created a microbiological threat to our world. Unless we find a way to curb it, the microbes will win.