About 1.3 million deaths were directly caused by drug-resistant bacterial infections in 2019, a global study estimates
20 January 2022
Bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics are considered one of the biggest threats facing modern medicine. Overuse of such drugs has led to resistance becoming more widespread, raising the prospect that common infections such as sepsis and pneumonia will become harder to treat.
Mohsen Naghavi at the University of Washington in Seattle and his colleagues devised a model to estimate how many people died in 2019 from bacterial infections that could previously have been treated were it not for antimicrobial resistance (AMR). No such global survey has been conducted before.
The model was based on the medical records of 471 million people with antibiotic-resistant infections from 204 countries. The team scoured published studies and medical records to get as comprehensive a data set on AMR as possible. “For countries that had very little data, we calculated figures based on a regional pattern we developed,” says Naghavi.
The researchers found that about 1.3 million deaths could be directly attributed to AMR worldwide. They also found that a further 3.65 million deaths involved people who had diseases that showed some form of AMR. “We can’t say for certain that these deaths were due to antimicrobial resistance, but some may have been,” says Naghavi.
If both groups are included, it would make AMR the third leading cause of death globally in 2019 behind ischaemic heart attacks and strokes. Even the more conservative estimate would mean that AMR killed more people that year than HIV/AIDS, which was responsible for 680,000 deaths, and malaria, which killed 627,000 people.
“The stark reality of these figures points to the critical and urgent need to increase resources for the basics of infection control. In many places, this means water, sanitation, hygiene,” says Clare Chandler at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.
More than 70 per cent of deaths linked to AMR in the study were due to resistance to beta-lactam antibiotics such as penicillin. “We weren’t surprised by this because we know how much these drugs are prescribed in clinics,” says Naghavi.
The key to tackling antimicrobial resistance is multifaceted, says Naghavi. “Developed countries need to prescribe fewer antibiotics and develop more vaccines for infectious diseases,” he says. Giving livestock fewer antibiotics, ensuring better hygiene in hospitals and improving surveillance of antimicrobial resistance is also important, he adds.
Journal reference: The Lancet, DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(21)02724-0
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