In 1928, when Alexander Fleming discovered the bacteria penicillin growing in an old, discarded Petri dish, the medical world was turned on its head. It was some 11 years later when South Australian Howard Florey lead a team of British scientists to begin manufacturing the drug that would go on to save the lives of millions.
However, according to experts, the age of antibiotics is coming to an end.This was recently confirmed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) when its report, Antimicrobial Resistance: Global Report on Surveillance, found that many common viruses are evolving in typical Darwinistic fashion to resist the life-saving treatment.
Random mutations have been observed in bacteria that has led them to become resistant to antibiotics. Other microbes have inherited their drug-fighting powers from resistant bacteria.
Microbiologist at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) Maurizio Labbate said "superbugs" can grow to be resistant to three or four types of antibiotics. He added that 5 per cent of infections in Australian hospitals have this "multiply resistant" quality.
Meanwhile, WHO said that the "last-resort antibiotic" has failed to treat cases of gonorrhoea in Australia and nine other countries.
How antibiotics help
Antibiotics help the medical process in more ways than people may imagine – from treating common infections to assisting in some of the most complex surgical procedures.
From organ transplants, open heart surgery and kidney dialysis to liposuction, antibiotics are used extensively to prevent potentially life-threatening diseases.
Losing antibiotics restricts the treatment of people after traumatic accidents, from major car crashes to falls among elderly people.
According to health expert Maryn McKenna, the dangers of regressing to a pre-antibacterial era would cause more deaths from common medical procedures and treatments.
In her article for Wired, she explained: "Before antibiotics became widely used, five women died out of every 1,000 who gave birth; one out of every nine skin infections killed; three out of every 10 people who got pneumonia died from it."
The next step
According to Scientific American, we are years away from new drugs with better effectivity against evolved bacteria. Author Arjun Srinivasan went on to say that studies estimate that antibiotic resistance adds US$20 billion to healthcare costs.
When treatments are available, they will be urgent, according to UTS's Mr Labbate. "Imagine a world of untreatable bacterial infections, including epidemics and pandemics," he warned. The pharmaceutical industry may initially struggle to meet demands.
To ensure the Australian population continues to receive the vast benefits of antibiotic treatment, the government-funded Pharmaceutical Benefit Scheme (PBS) will be under pressure to provide an effective national supply of new treatments.
Private health insurance may be an option for many preferring individual care and will take the pressure off the public health system. Private healthcare offers patients the choice of when, where and who administers their care, as well as limiting costs through extras cover. With alternatives to antibiotics some way off, extras cover can offer some cost relief for non-PBS pharmaceuticals.
It is important that a private health insurance plan protects from a number of developing risks. If you would like to discuss your insurance options, contact an expert and discuss a personalised plan that is tailored for you.