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Britain's laboratory national reference

in a national reference laboratory at Britain's Health Protection Agency. "All you can seek to do 

is to stay a jump ahead." 

That's not happening now for a number of reasons. For a start, antibiotics are everywhere, giving 

bacteria countless opportunities to evolve escape routes. The drugs can be picked up, without 

prescription, for pennies in countries like Thailand, India and parts of Latin America. Even 

though their use is controlled in the west, the system encourages doctors to shoot the bugs first 

and ask questions later. Perhaps most worryingly, the world's top drug companies, faced with 

decreasing returns and ever more expensive and difficult science, have not only slowed their 

efforts to develop new antibiotics but have been quitting the field in droves. 

Today, only two large companies - GlaxoSmithKline Plc and AstraZeneca Plc -- still have strong 

and active antibiotic research and development programmes, according to the Infectious Diseases 

Society of America. Back in 1990, there were nearly 20. 

That could have a profound impact on how we treat our sick. "If some of the most potent multi-

resistant strains that we see now accumulate, then modern medicine -- from transplants to cancer 

treatment and even quite straightforward gut surgery, potentially becomes untenable," says 

Livermore. "You need the ability to treat infections in vulnerable patients. Lose that and a swathe 

of modern medicine becomes unstable." 

Are we about to start going backwards, to a pre-antibiotic era in which things like hip 

replacements, chemotherapy and intensive care are simply impossible? It's a big enough fear for 

the World Health Organisation to devote this year's World Health Day on April 7 to 

antimicrobial resistance in a bid to safeguard these drugs for future generations. 

"Modern medicine can't function without effective antibiotics," says Derek Butler, chairman of 

the MRSA Action UK charity for which the Owens are raising money. "If we lose these magic 

bullets, medicine will be set back over 80 years. 

RAT ON THE WARD 

One aspect of the race against bugs has changed little since Fleming's time, or Florence 

Nightingale's before that. Hospital hygiene is the basic, unglamorous and underpaid work that 

forms the vital first-line of defence against pathogens. If it is done properly, it can ease the 

demand for drugs in the first place. 

Yet Steve Owen remembers his dad telling him he'd seen a rat running through his ward - a 

shock in a developed world hospital. 

Bugs are no respecters of age. Donald Owen was 82 when the treatment for his knee problems 

ended up killing him. Susan Fallon's daughter Sammie was just 17 when she was admitted with 

flu-like symptoms to another British hospital in April 2008. Pretty, petite -- at only five feet tall 

she was "like a little doll", her mother says -- Sammie dreamed of being a professional 

photographer. When her hospital blood tests came back with worrying results, doctors ordered 

more, including a bone marrow biopsy. That led to a diagnosis of a rare blood disorder which 

required chemotherapy. She also picked up a superbug. Just over a month later, before any 

treatment had a chance to work, Sammie was dead. 

The experience left her mother bereft, angry and with a fear of hospitals and the people who 

work in them. "I don't know which one came in without washing their hands and gave this bug to 

Sammie," she says. "But if I went into hospital now I'd be saying 'Wash your hands before you 

come near me' -- I'd be really vigilant."