It is a natural medicine used for thousands of years to clean wounds and fight bacteria.
Now, however, honey could hold the key to combating the very modern threat of drug-resistant superbugs.
A study has shown that manuka honey can fight back on two fronts. Not only can it help to kill MRSA and other superbugs, it can also prevent bacteria from becoming resistant to antibiotics.
The danger of the rise of bugs which do not succumb to drugs was outlined this month by the Chief Medical Officer.
Professor Dame Sally Davies described it as a ‘ticking timebomb’ which could leave millions vulnerable to untreatable germs within a generation.
But a study in Australia offers a solution. At the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), tests were carried out on manuka, kanuka and clover honeys to find which was best at treating bacteria commonly found in chronic skin wounds
Researchers looked at key ingredients known to inhibit bacterial growth.
The best at doing this was Comvita medical-grade manuka honey, made by bees foraging on New Zealand’s manuka trees.
When combined with common antibiotics, the treatment hampered the spread of bacteria on wounds.
Crucially, scientists found the honey prevented the bugs from developing any resistance to the antibiotic.
Professor Liz Harry, of UTS, said: ‘Manuka honey should be used as a first resort for wound treatment, rather than the last resort, as it so often is.’
The research, in the journal PLOS ONE, follows a previous study which found that the honey was effective against more than 80 types of bacteria, including MRSA.
Commercial honey bought at shops is not suitable as it needs to be sterilized to make it medical grade.
Infections are becoming more difficult to defeat but no new class of antibiotic has been discovered since the 1980’s.
It follows a previous study that found manuka honey is effective against more than 80 different types of bacteria, including hospital superbug MRSA.
Professor Liz Harry at UTS said: ‘We have shown bacteria do not become resistant to honey in the laboratory. Consistent with these facts, we also found that if MRSA were treated with just rifampicin [antibiotic], the superbug became resistant very quickly,’ she said.
‘However, when manuka honey and rifampicin are used in combination to treat MRSA, rifampicin-resistant MRSA did not emerge. In other words, honey somehow prevents the emergence of rifampicin-resistant MRSA – this is a hugely important finding.’
With overuse of antibiotics partly blamed for the increase in resistant superbugs, GPs will be asked to prescribe fewer antibiotics to patients.
And while infections are becoming increasingly difficult to beat, no new class of antibiotic has been discovered since the 1980s.
Dr Harry added: ‘With the existence now of bacteria that are resistant to all available antibiotics, and the death of new antibiotics on the market, manuka honey should be used as a first resort for wound treatment, rather than the last resort as it so often does.
‘What we need is an acceptance by society that antibiotics are not going to provide all that we hoped for when they were discovered in the 1940s; and that we need to start getting very serious about using alternatives to this, or use honey in addition to them.’
While all types of honey have some antibacterial properties, the ingredients of manuka honey make it particularly powerful.
It is possible to buy dressings that already contain the honey, as well apply honey directly to bandages and other dressings.
However, supermarket honey will not do. Any honey used be sterilised to make it of medical grade.
- Apitherapy, the use of honey as a medicine, has been practised since the times of Ancient Greece (2,000BC – 600AD)
- Honey from the manuka, an evergreen shrub originating from New Zealand, was used by Maoris and settlers as medicine
- The honey has an anti-bacterial level four times greater than standard antiseptic
- It is used to clean wounds, heal stomach ulcers and treat eczema, acne and insect stings