Penicillin is losing the fight against the killer bug pneumococcus, responsible for pneumonia, meningitis, sinusitis and otitis media (middle ear infection).
Overuse is making the bug resistant to penicillin, which was once considered one of the miracle drugs of the 20th century.
Populations of children and adults are also building up resistance to other common drugs, too.
A recent study in the US has discovered that 25 per cent of patients were suffering from a drug-resistant strain of the bug, and this figure shot up to 40 per cent among white children aged under six.
Just 10 years ago, the frequency of penicillin-resistant pneumococcus was just 0.02 per cent.
At the current rate, penicillin will be ineffective against the bug within a few years in the US.
But this worrying trend is not exclusive to America. Overall, penicillin resistance in Spain has already reached 40 per cent, another study has revealed, and a similar picture would no doubt be painted in most other developed countries. Scientists accept that penicillin-resistant strains are developing worldwide.
Doctors are now calling for a new antibacterial agent which they say is needed urgently. Otherwise, the bug may become a major killer again, they fear. Already, the US is spending $4 billion a year to treat victims of the bug.
The alarming rise of the penicillin-resistant strain came to light when researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta examined 431 patients, including adults and children. They discovered that 25 per cent of them were resistant to penicillin, and 7 per cent of these were highly resistant. Researchers also found resistance against other drugs; 26 per cent were resistant to trimethoprim-sulphamethoxazole, 15 per cent were resistant to erythromycin, and 9 per cent to cefotaxime, and 25 per cent to multiple drugs.
Resistance was also higher among whites, which indicates they have received more medication than blacks. The single highest group of drug-resistant patients was young whites, aged six or under; among these, 41 per cent were resistant to penicillin.
A similarly worrying picture has emerged from Spain, where the University of Barcelona researched drug-resistance among 504 pneumonia patients. They found a similar profile of resistance, as did the US researchers, with 29 per cent of patients showing penicillin-resistant strains of pneumonia, and a further 6 per cent showing resistance to cephalosporin. Of these, 38 per cent died from severe pneumonia, compared to 24 per cent of those who were still sensitive to penicillin (N E J Med, August 24, 1995).