A new report from London warns that by 2050, drug-resistant “superbugs” will cause 10 million deaths a year, according to the current trend. Policy analysts expect recommendations on public health policy by 2016 to help combat antimicrobial resistance, before antibiotics, one of the cornerstones of modern medicine, become useless.
The threat of a new super-virus that will kill millions is often on the minds of health policy makers and Hollywood producers, but the “superbug” is a different kind of threat. They’re not new diseases. In fact, the chief culprits are E. coli, malaria, and tuberculosis, according to the BBC, all old, well-known bugs that mankind has been fighting for decades. Malaria is particularly threatening, as previously reported by the Inquisitr — scientists have even considered genetically modified mosquitoes to prevent infections.
But among the strains of these illnesses there are some that doctors can do little to treat because they resist conventional medications.
The process works like an extreme version of natural selection. When antibiotics are used to kill a harmful bacteria, usually they are wiped out. But occasionally, some survive the onslaught and go on to repopulate, spreading their super tough resistance to the new generation. Hence, “superbugs.”
Superbugs already kill about 700,000 people each year worldwide, 50,000 in the U.S. alone. That number is expected to increase over 10 fold, to hit about 10 million by 2050. To put that in perspective, cancer, one of the most widely feared and deadly diseases today, kills about 8.2 million. That figure assumes that nothing is done to curb the pending danger, something the report’s authors find “unforgivable.”
“It would be unforgivable if the great progress made in combating infectious diseases could be threatened by the lack of new drugs that are within reach, or for lack of common sense investment in infrastructure that keeps us safe from avoidable infections.”
According to the report, Asia and Africa will suffer the most causalities, with a combined total of about 8.7 million annual deaths. The rest of the world will divide up the remainder of the 10 million fairly equally.
The overall damage to the world economy will also be significant. According to Time, superbugs could cut the global GDP by as much as 3.5 percent — roughly $100 trillion — by 2050, not to mention put enormous strain on health systems already struggling. Superbugs could also have a spill-over effect to other health conditions. Surgery patients receive antibiotics to prevent infection, but if bacteria resistance continues to grow, infection risks, and subsequent deaths, become more common.
So what does the report suggest to fix the problem?
More vaccines, more research, and more cooperation.
Although the report doesn’t provide a clear cut strategy — that’s expected in 2016 — it does highlight areas of progress. The community of biotech researchers are already thinking of solutions, including new vaccines and treatments. The World Health Organization is organizing a global health plan to fight the superbugs, and new technologies like genomics offer more cause for optimism.
The report was originally commissioned by David Cameron of the U.K. and can be found here.
[Image Credit: Jim Gathany/Wikimedia Commons]