A healthcare workers adjusts a face mask on another workerShare on Pinterest
Drug-resistant bacteria continue to be a problem.
Ezequiel Giménez/Stocksy
  • Experts are raising concerns about the growing number of deaths due to antibiotic-resistant superbugs.
  • They say one reason for the increase is the large number of unnecessary antibiotic prescriptions.
  • They say new antibiotics as well as more research are needed to combat the problem.

For years, scientists have been sounding the alarm about how so-called superbugs can be life threatening.

The bugs are the strains of bacteria, viruses, parasites, and fungi that are resistant to most of the antibiotics and other medications used to treat infections.

Drug-resistant bacteria can cause pneumonia, urinary tract infections, skin infections, and other ailments.

Now, a new study outlines just how life threatening that drug resistance is when it comes to antibiotics, or what scientists call antimicrobial resistance.

The research, recently published in the medical journal The Lancet, says antibiotic-resistant superbugs cause an estimated 1.2 million deaths a year globally.

One of the study’s lead authors said in a video statement that superbugs are now ranked among some of the world’s deadliest infectious diseases.

“AMR [antimicrobial resistance] is now a leading cause of death in the world… Larger than some global health well-recognized priorities such as HIV and tuberculosis,” said Dr. Christopher J.L. Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington.

“It’s really the number two or three infectious disease killer on the planet,” said Kevin Outterson, a professor at the Boston University School of Law and director of CARB-X or Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria Biopharmaceutical Accelerator.

He has been warning about a potential superbug storm.

“This study was news even to experts because it came up with an estimate that was much higher than what anyone really thought was the consensus number” Outterson told Healthline.

Outterson said part of the reason is that over decades there have been massive programs to drive down the number of deaths for other infectious diseases such as malaria and HIV.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are nearly 3 million antibiotic-resistant infections a year in the United States and more than 35,000 people die from them.

The CDC says one reason is that too many antibiotic prescriptions are being written unnecessarily.

A 2016 study by the agency suggested that 1 in every 3 antibiotic prescriptions was unnecessary. Researchers found that most of those 47 million excess prescriptions were prescribed for respiratory conditions caused by viruses, which do not respond to antibiotics.

The study suggested intervention strategies in five main categories.

  • controlling and preventing infection
  • using vaccines to prevent infections
  • reducing use of antibiotics in farming
  • prescribing antibiotics only when necessary
  • investing in an antibiotic development pipeline

The World Health Organization has released a list prioritizing the most urgent pathogens that need treatments.

However, the process of researching and getting new antibiotics approved is lengthy and costly for pharmaceutical companies and The Lancet study researchers say not enough is being done.

“Our current action plans are not ambitious enough to stop the AMR threat. While resistance levels continue to grow, antibiotic development has not kept up,” said Lucien Swetschinski, a researcher at IHME, in a video statement.

“Between 1980 and 2000, 63 new antibiotics were developed and approved by the FDA. Between 2000 and 2018, only 15 additional antibiotics were approved by the FDA,” he said.

In 2016, the Department of Health and Human Services tasked CARB-X to lead an effort to get more antibiotic research in the pipeline.

Outterson said the nonprofit is funded by the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, two foundations, the Wellcome Trust, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

He says to date, the organization has given grants of $380 million to 81 small companies that are developing new antibacterials.

Outterson says there’s a lot more that needs to be done, but the science in that area is making progress.

“There’s a lot of really innovative new products coming through. Most of them are quite early. They haven’t been tested in humans yet” he said.

“The money that was spent a decade ago at the NIH [National Institutes of Health] or in their equivalency in Europe or Japan and other countries is bearing fruit. There’s a lot of interesting compounds coming out,” he said.

However, Outterson says, the past 2 years have been focused on COVID-19, with a lot of the research money and attention going to that battle.

“We need to remember that it’s not just viruses that kill people. Bacteria and fungi do as well,” he said. “This Lancet study is important because it tells us… it [antimicrobial resistance] kills more people than the HIV virus.”