Honey - The Natural Broadspectrum

Honey is set fair to be the new medical champion in hospitals. Latest research claims that it could help combat the potentially lethal rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria that are proving notoriously difficult to treat when they appear in infections. By studying the way bacteria protect themselves from attack by forming slimy clumps, the scientists have discovered that honey may be an effective new weapon,in breaking up the microbes' defences. The researchers involved are from the School of Applied Sciences at the University of Wales Institute Cardiff (UWIC), in the UK.

In their latest work into novel antibiotics they have looked at dangerous infections that commonly get into wounds, particularly those such as the Pseudomonas bacteria. "If the bacteria can multiply enough to form a slimy mass called a biofilm - the sort of slime you get round a sink plughole for instance - they are much less sensitive to antibiotics and antiseptics," said team spokesperson Ana Henriques of the UWIC. "Doctors looking after badly injured and infected patients urgently need to remove these biofilms so that they can treat their wounds safely, and prevent the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria."

The Cardiff team studied six strains of the bacteria, five of which came from injuries, and grew them in the laboratory to form biofilms that are notoriously difficult to treat when they appear as hospital infections. Biofilms prevent healing in wounds and may lead to chronic ulcers. The laboratory-grown samples were treated with manuka honey and then unattached bacteria were washed off and the remaining slime layer studied after various periods. In every sample the biofilm was disrupted making it more susceptible to the treatment with conventional antibiotics.

"This suggests that simple honey could be a realistic alternative to treatment with antibiotics and antiseptics," said Ana Henriques. "With the rise in hospital infections from resistant bacteria, we need more effective treatments quickly. Dressings impregnated with manuka honey became available for prescription earlier this year, and for the first time we have shown that honey is effective against these tough biofilms as well as slowing isolated bacteria."

The research could have a major impact in developing countries where honey is cheap and readily available but where modern pharmaceuticals are more difficult to obtain. Honey is easy to use and has no known side-effects on human health.

It has been known for its healing properties for thousands of years - the Ancient Greeks used it and so have many other peoples through the ages. Even up to the second world war, honey was being used for its antibacterial properties in treating wounds.

Many district nurses still remember using honey to treat difficult sores and, in particular, anecdotal evidence exists of the use of honey in hospitals in Cardiff in the 1970s. Folk remedies recommended that warriors should pack battle wounds with honey and lay fresh spider webs across the top to keep out dirt and help healing. This latest research suggests that honey may not have been such a useless old wives' tale.

Obviously, with the advent of penicillin and other antibiotic drugs in the 20 century, honey's medicinal qualities have taken a back seat. But that might be about to change following research into a specific honey- manuka honey- a strain being used by the Cardiff researchers. The principal work into this honey has been carried out by biochemist Professor Peter Molan at his Honey Research Unit at the University of Waikato, North Island.

His work has identified this particular type of honey with extraordinary healing qualities. Professor Molan has shown that honey made from the flowers of the manuka bush, a native of New Zealand, has antibacterial properties over and above those of other honeys.

"In all honeys, there is - to different levels - hydrogen peroxide produced from an enzyme that bees add to the nectar," he explained. "In manuka honey, and its close relative which grows in Australia called jellybush, there is something else besides the hydrogen peroxide. And there's nothing like that ever been found anywhere else in the world."

That "something else" has proved very hard to pin down. Even now, after more than 20 years of research, Peter Molan admits he still has no idea exactly what it is. But he has given it a name: the unique manuka factor - UMF. And he has found a way to measure its antibacterial efficacy, by comparing UMF manuka honey with a standard antiseptic (carbolic, or phenol) in its ability to fight bacteria. The claimed results are astonishing.

"We know it has a very broad spectrum of action," he added. "It works on bacteria, fungi, protozoa. We haven't found anything it doesn't work on among infectious organisms. And that includes the antibiotic resistant strains - MRSA - which is just as sensitive to honey as any other staphylococcus aureas."

Clinical trials at Waikato hospital have shown that even out of the lab, UMF manuka honey has amazing healing properties. Nurse practitioner Julie Betts has successfully used honey to treat leg ulcers and pressure sores. And she says it helps healing after surgery - particularly for diabetic patients. "It has an anti-inflammatory effect as well, so if I want to do several things apart from actually controlling the bacteria in that wound, then that's when I'll use honey."

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