Antibiotic-Resistant Superbugs Could Kill Millions Every Year If Left Unchecked

Image courtesy of Great Beyond

Each year, some 700,000 people around the world die from antibiotic-resistant infections; that’s more than 1,900 deaths per day. If nothing is done to curb the overuse of antibiotics — in humans, and in livestock and agriculture — these superbugs could eventually kill 1,100 people every hour.

This is according to the final report [PDF] on antimicrobial resistance from UK economist Jim O’Neill, who produced this and previous research at the request of UK Prime Minister David Cameron.

O’Neill contends that the current 700,000 figure for annual deaths attributable to antimicrobial resistance is a conservative number due to poor reporting.

“Nearly 200,000 people die every year from multidrug-resistant and extremely drug-resistant tuberculosis alone,” he writes. “In India, antibiotic-resistant neonatal infections cause the deaths of nearly 60,000 new-borns each year. A current death toll on this scale means that more than one million people have lost their lives to drug-resistant infections in the 19 months since we published our first report.”

Using data on rising drug resistance for six pathogens, O’Neill estimates that by 2050, drug-resistant bacteria could kill 10 million people a year, at a cost of $100 trillion.

“On this basis, by 2050, the death toll could be a staggering one person every three seconds and each person in the world today will be more than $10,000 worse off.”

Antimicrobial resistance occurs naturally and has been seen by researchers since the introduction of antibiotics. However, resistance can be encouraged by the overuse of antibiotics.

Not only are physicians overprescribing antibiotics to treat viral infections and other conditions on which these drugs have no effect, but the overwhelming majority of antibiotics sold in the U.S. and several other countries is being provided to farm animals primarily for the purpose of growth-promotion.

At the same time, no new classes of antibiotics have been created in more than 30 years, meaning we’re continuing to use too many of the same old drugs, giving rise to more resistance.

With the increase in superbugs, doctors have had to turn to drugs of last resort to treat infections that had previously been fought off using traditional antibiotics. Colistin, a harsh antibiotic that had been used only sparingly because it can severely damage the kidneys, is now being used more frequently to treat resistant pathogens.

Of even more concern than the potential damage done by colistin is the fact that colisitin-resistant bacteria has already been found in at least 19 countries on three continents.

When resistance renders a drug of last resort useless, where else do you turn? This is why we simultaneously need to curb the overuse of our current lineup of antibiotics and invest money and time in the development of new treatments.

Congresswoman Louise Slaughter of New York, a trained microbiologist and an outspoken critic of antibiotics overuse, says the O’Neill report spotlights the need for a global response to the problem.

“We cannot fix this issue if we continue to misuse new antibiotics in the same old ways,” says Rep. Slaughter, who has introduced legislation intended to curb the use of these drugs in farm animals. “This single industry consumes 80% of all antibiotics, which is why we must finally end the overuse and abuse of antibiotics in agriculture for nontherapeutic uses.”

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