12 December 2014

Superbugs threaten to kill 10 million a year

Drug-resistant superbugs could reverse key medical advances made yet, which may see diseases like malaria and HIV once again spiral out of control, a review warns.


Drug-resistant superbugs could kill an extra 10 million people a year and cost up to $100 trillion by 2050 if their rampant global spread is not halted, according to a British government-commissioned review.

Such infections already kill hundreds of thousands of people a year and the trend is growing, the review said, adding: "The importance of effective antimicrobial drugs cannot be overplayed."

Former Goldman Sachs chief economist Jim O'Neill, who led the work, noted that in Europe and the United States alone around 50 000 people currently die each year from infections caused by superbug forms of bacteria such as E.coli.

Read: Drug-resistant superbugs already around in 1915

"Unless something is done by 2050, that number could become 10 million people losing their lives each year from then onwards," he told a briefing in London.

Antimicrobials are a class of drugs that includes antibiotics, antivirals, antiparasitics and antifungals.

The Review of Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) is based on analysis by two sets of researchers, RAND and KPMG, estimating the future impact of AMR under different scenarios for six common infections - three bacterial infections, plus malaria, HIV and tuberculosis.

But it excludes indirect effects of growing drug resistance which could "cast medicine back to the dark ages," the review said, by making routine procedures more dangerous.

Read: UK calls for global action on superbug threat

The problem posed by infectious microbes developing resistance to such drugs has been a feature of medicine since Alexander Fleming's discovery of the first antibiotic, penicillin, in Britain in 1928.

But it has worsened in recent years as multi-drug-resistant bugs have developed and drug companies have reduced investment in an unprofitable field.

The World Health Organisation has warned that a post-antibiotic era, where basic healthcare becomes far more dangerous due to risk of infection during routine operations, could arrive this century unless something drastic is done.

Read: Drug-resistant malaria could reach Africa

O'Neill, who was asked by British Prime Minister David Cameron in July to take a global economist's view of the problem, said he feared the assessment of its $100 trillion impact may be too conservative.

"As big as that number might seem, it almost definitely underestimates the true economic cost," he said.

O'Neill said this review was the first of several, with more due next year and a final report scheduled for 2016.

His team has been asked to set out a plan for accelerating development of new antimicrobial drugs, including antibiotics, and looking into ways of incentivising drugmakers to produce them.

Also read:

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Antibiotics overuse a health risk
Too many antibiotics a danger


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Dr Sindisiwe van Zyl qualified at the University of Pretoria before working for an HIV/AIDS NPO in Soweto for many years. She was named one of the Mail & Guardian's Top 200 Young South Africans in 2012.

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