Over 1 million people died in 2019 from antimicrobial resistance: study

Misuse and overuse of antibiotics in recent years has led some bacteria to develop antimicrobial resistance, meaning that antibiotics become less effective and infections persist in the body. [SHUTTERSTOCK/Jarun Ontakrai]

Antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections caused an estimated 1.2 million deaths in 2019 worldwide, according to new research published on Wednesday (19 January). Scientists call for more investment and better use of existing antibiotics.

The analysis of the global impact of antimicrobial resistance (AMR), published in medical journal The Lancet, revealed that AMR caused over 1.2 million deaths in 2019. Moreover, antimicrobial-resistant infections played a role in almost 5 million deaths.

“Previous estimates had predicted 10 million annual deaths from antimicrobial resistance by 2050, but we now know for certain that we are already far closer to that figure than we thought,” said study co-author professor Chris Murray, of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. 

These findings revealed that “AMR is now a leading cause of death worldwide, higher than HIV/AIDS or malaria,” according to a press statement by The Lancet. HIV/AIDS and malaria have been estimated to have caused 860,000 and 640,000 deaths, respectively, in 2019.

Ramanan Laxminarayan from the Center for Disease Dynamics, who was not involved in the study, highlighted that HIV attracts close to 44 billion per year in research funding. “However, global spending on addressing AMR is probably much lower than that,” he said.

EU action to turn the AMR tide looks at different incentive models

EU policymakers are being urged to consider the full range of new incentive systems and pilot innovative approaches to tackle antimicrobial resistance (AMR), including Netflix-style subscription services and pull incentives.

Misuse and overuse of antibiotics in recent years has led some bacteria to develop antimicrobial resistance, meaning that antibiotics become less effective and infections persist in the body.

This means that previously treatable infections – such as lower respiratory or bloodstream infections – now become deadly for thousands of people because of the bacteria being resistant to the treatment. 

The analysis looked at 23 organisms causing disease out of which drug resistance in six bacterias alone led directly to almost 930,000 deaths and was associated with over 3.5 million fatalities. Resistance to fluoroquinolones and beta-lactam antibiotics such as penicillins, which are often considered the first line of defence against severe infections, accounted for over 70% of deaths attributable to AMR, the study found. 

Murray said that this new data is a “clear signal that we must act now to combat the threat”. 

To address this, researchers called for scaling up action to combat AMR by improving infection control measures, optimising usage of existing antibiotics and providing more funding to develop new antibiotics and treatments.

“We need to leverage this data to course-correct action and drive innovation if we want to stay ahead in the race against antimicrobial resistance,” Murray said.  

Heavy use of antibiotics in COVID-19 treatment likely to increase AMR

COVID-19 pandemic has helped raise political awareness of health issues but the widespread misuse of antibiotics in COVID patient treatment is likely to result in increased antimicrobial resistance, health experts have warned.

Differences across the world

The study found that the highest all-age rate of deaths attributable to and associated with antimicrobial resistance was in African regions. Looking at Europe, the most deaths were recorded in the Eastern part, while the lowest was in the West. 

“With resistance varying so substantially by country and region, improving the collection of data worldwide is essential to help us better track levels of resistance and equip clinicians and policymakers with the information they need to address the most pressing challenges posed by antimicrobial resistance,” said study co-author Professor Christiane Dolecek.

The study emphasised that low- and middle-income countries are the most impacted, though higher-income countries also face alarmingly high levels of AMR.

“We identified serious data gaps in many low-income countries, emphasising a particular need to increase laboratory capacity and data collection in these locations,” Dolecek said. 

The study also showed that young children are at the highest risk among all the age groups. Around one in five deaths attributable to AMR occurred in children aged under five years.

The European Commission’s health commissioner, Stella Kyriakides, has acknowledged the threat posed by AMR, saying the EU executive was planning a range of measures to counter it. “Our Farm to Fork strategy seeks to halve the EU sales of antimicrobials for farmed animals and backward culture by 2030,” Kyriakides recently told the European Parliament’s health committee.

MEP: Public-private partnerships needed to face silent threat of AMR

Investment in research and development, together with encouraging the innovative economic models is a way to fight this silent threat, Swedish centre-right MEP Jessica Polfjärd told EURACTIV in an interview.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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