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.
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 has become a major public health concern, and scientists are searching for new ways to combat antibiotic-resistant infections.
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.
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.
Take a closer look at antimicrobial resistance in this article.
Find out what you can do to reduce the risks of antimicrobial resistance.
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.
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 Siouxie 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.