More than 1.2 million people died from antibiotic resistant infections in 2019, according to new peer-reviewed research published in the Lancet Thursday, a figure exceeding that of major killers like HIV/AIDS and malaria which experts say underscores the need for immediate action to combat the growing threat.
Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) was directly responsible for an estimated 1.27 million deaths in 2019, according to the most comprehensive global analysis of the issue to date, which drew on data from 204 countries and territories.
That year, resistant infections were associated with nearly 5 million deaths, the researchers found, though resistance itself may or may not have been the direct cause of death.
By either metric, AMR would have been a leading cause of death in 2019, the researchers said, ranking third (after ischaemic heart disease and stroke) for associated deaths and 12th for deaths in which resistance was directly responsible.
Six pathogens—E. coli, S. aureus, K. pneumoniae, S. pneumoniae, A. baumannii, and P. aeruginosa, respectively—accounted for nearly 75% of deaths attributable to AMR and seven specific pathogen-drug combinations were each responsible for more than 50,000 deaths.
Methicillin-resistant S. aureus, MRSA, was the most lethal pathogen-drug combination of 88 studied and alone was directly responsible for over 100,000 deaths in 2019.
Study co-author Professor Chris Murray from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation said the data “reveal the true scale of antimicrobial resistance” and are a “clear signal” for immediate action.
Before antibiotics, something as simple as a paper cut could kill. With no reliably effective way to treat bacterial infections, childbirth was much more dangerous, STI’s were often incurable, disfiguring and lethal, and any kind of surgery was a serious hazard. With the spread of resistance, it’s possible many of these now-mundane threats could become life-threatening and medical advances like surgery or procedures that suppress the immune system (including chemotherapy for cancer and organ transplants) will have to be used more carefully. While the Covid-19 pandemic prompted funding and innovation on an unprecedented scale, comparatively little has been done to address antibiotic resistance. Resistance could render many of the drugs we rely on useless and could be just as dangerous as the pandemic, experts warn, and is hastened by their profligate use in medicine and agriculture.
As the paper highlights, resistant bacteria are already beginning to cause major problems and old threats like tuberculosis are returning in forms that are quickly becoming impossible to treat. Last year, an expert from the World Health Organization sounded the alarm on antibiotic use during the pandemic, warning it may be fueling the spread of antibiotic resistant “super gonorrhea.”
While AMR poses a threat to everyone, the researchers found young children were at particularly high risk. Around one in five deaths attributable to AMR occurred in children aged under five years of age.
In a linked comment article, Dr. Ramanan Laxminarayan from the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy in Washington, D.C., said the study shines a brighter light on the problem of AMR, which has gone from an “unrecognized and hidden problem” to one of the most pressing issues in public health. Laxminarayan, who was not involved in the study, said funding for AMR does not match the scale of the problem and the problem likely receives much less than the $50 billion spent on HIV each year.