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  • Infectious diseases have been a feature of life and death throughout history. Humans have been treating infections for millennia, including use of materials with antimicrobial properties such as herbs, honey and even topical applications of mouldy bread. In Aotearoa New Zealand, rongoā Māori (the traditional Māori healing system) involves a variety of plants (for example, kawakawa and mānuka) and other natural resources as medicine, including to treat infectious diseases.

    Rights: Public domain


    Mānuka has been used as medicine by Māori for centuries. The leaves and oil of the mānuka tree are used to treat a wide range of ailments, including infection.

    Today, mānuka is also known for its honey, which is produced by bees that feed on the nectar of the mānuka tree’s flowers.

    Mānuka honey is commonly used topically to treat wounds, burns and other skin conditions. It is believed to help promote the healing process by reducing inflammation, preventing infection and stimulating the growth of new tissue.

    Early in the 20th century, antibiotics were discovered, which revolutionised modern healthcare. In 1928, Scottish physician Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, a naturally occurring antimicrobial produced by a type of mould. Fleming’s discovery paved the way for the development of antibiotics.

    From the 1940s, streptomycin and many other antibiotics were discovered by studying soil microbes. These new antibiotics were effective against a wide range of bacterial infections.

    The widespread use of antibiotics in the 1950s and 1960s led to a significant decrease in infectious disease mortality rates and contributed to the rapid increase in life expectancy.

    However, the overuse and misuse of antibiotics have led to the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Antibiotic resistance (AMR) has become a major public health concern, and scientists are searching for new ways to combat antibiotic-resistant infections.

    Rights: Public domain

    Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) bacteria

    Staphylococcus aureus is a type of bacteria that is commonly found on the skin and in the nose of healthy individuals. While it usually does not cause any harm, it can cause infections if it enters the body through a cut or other opening. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is resistant to several common antibiotics, including methicillin, penicillin and amoxicillin. This means that these antibiotics are not effective in treating MRSA infections.

    Digitally coloured micrograph by National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

    MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) is an example of an infection that has become resistant to some commonly used antibiotics. Prevention measures for MRSA include good hygiene practices such as washing hands regularly with soap and water, using alcohol-based hand sanitisers, keeping cuts and wounds clean and covered and avoiding sharing personal items.

    Supporting animal and plant health

    Antibiotics are also an important part of animal health. Antibiotics like tetracyclines are used in farmed animals (pigs, chickens, sheep and cows) with smaller amounts used for companion animals like cats and dogs and aviary birds. Streptomycin is used in horticulture to treat blight and bacterial diseases in tomatoes, pipfruit and stone fruit. The use of antibiotics in agriculture and horticulture in New Zealand is low by international standards, but antimicrobial resistance is still a concern.


    The interactive timeline below outlines some of the historical developments related to the development and discoveries of antimicrobials and antibiotics and the subsequent development of antimicrobial resistance (AMR). It also shows how scientific thinking has changed as modern science developed. A full transcript is underneath.

    Antibiotics and antimicrobial resistance – a timeline

    • Discovery and use of antimicrobials
    • Scientific discoveries
    • Antimicrobial resistance develops

    Antibiotics and antimicrobial resistance – a timeline

    This timeline follows the historical events related to the development and discoveries of antimicrobials and antibiotics and the growth of antimicrobial resistance (AMR).

    A full transcript is underneath the timeline.

    Nature of science

    We often think of science with a modern lens. However, the processes of science – observation, inquiry and the use of evidence – have been used to combat disease over the span of human existence.

    Related content

    We have many antimicrobial resistance resources you can use – they are all organised in this handy interactive, part of this associated PLD article.

    Take a closer look at antimicrobial resistance in this article.

    Find out what you can do to reduce the risks of antimicrobial resistance.

    Watch our webinar The science of superbugs – teaching antimicrobial resistance awareness in Aotearoa with Dr Siouxsie Wiles.

    The Hub team created the collection Antimicrobial resistance resources to support teaching and learning about AMR. It is ready for you to use and customise as you choose.

    Fighting infection – timeline looks at some of the historical aspects of fighting infection, covering early discoveries on germs, vaccination, how our bodies help us to get better and more. Explore the history of vaccination and immunisation in New Zealand.

    Useful links

    Royal Society Te Apārangi has produced a series of articles and videos about antimicrobial resistance, including te reo Māori resource He uaua ake te rongoā i ngā whakapokenga ātete rongoā.

    Find out more about the Infectious disease and antimicrobial resistance report from the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor released in March 2022. There are a series of recommendations under six themes to help Aotearoa New Zealand unite against the threat of infectious disease and antimicrobial resistance.

    The Ministry of Health has information and links on its website – Resources for antibiotic awareness.

    Listen to Dr Siouxsie Wiles as she discusses the rise of resistant superbugs in this Radio New Zealand interview.


    This content has been developed in partnership with New Zealand Food Safety.

    Rights: Ministry for Primary Industries and New Zealand Food Safety

    Ministry for Primary Industries and New Zealand Food Safety logos

      Published 20 July 2023 Referencing Hub articles
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