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‘Superbugs’ Could Kill 10 Million a Year, Cost $100 Trillion If Unchecked

Expert warns of return to ‘dark ages’ of medicine

Drug-resistant “superbugs” could kill an extra 10 million people a year and cost up to $100 trillion by 2050 if their rampant global spread is not halted, according to a British government-commissioned review.

Such infections already kill hundreds of thousands of people each year and the trend is growing, the review said, adding: “The importance of effective antimicrobial drugs cannot be overplayed.”

Former Goldman Sachs chief economist Jim O'Neill, who led the work, noted that in the U.S. and Europe alone approximately 50,000 people currently die each year from infections caused by “superbug” forms of bacteria such as Escherichia coli.

“Unless something is done by 2050, that number could become 10 million people losing their lives each year from then onwards,” he told a briefing in London.

The review of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is based on analysis by two sets of researchers, RAND and KPMG, estimating the future effect of AMR under different scenarios for six common infections –– three bacterial infections, plus malaria, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection, and tuberculosis. But it excludes indirect effects of growing drug resistance, which could “cast medicine back to the dark ages,” the review said, by making routine procedures more dangerous.

The problem of infections developing resistance to drugs has been a feature of medicine since Alexander Fleming’s discovery of the first antibiotic, penicillin, in Britain in 1928. But it has worsened in recent years as multidrug-resistant bugs have developed and drug companies have reduced investment in an unprofitable field.

The World Health Organization has warned that a post-antibiotic era, where basic health care becomes far more dangerous because of the risk of infection during routine procedures, could arrive in this century unless something drastic is done.

O’Neill, who was asked by British Prime Minister David Cameron in July to take a global economist’s view of the problem, said he feared the assessment of its $100 trillion impact may be too conservative.

“As big as that number might seem, it almost definitely underestimates the true economic cost,” he said.

O'Neill said this review was the first of several, with more due next year and a final report scheduled for 2016.

His team has been asked to set out a plan for accelerating the development of new antimicrobial drugs and looking into ways of incentivizing drug makers to produce them.

Source: Reuters; December 10, 2014.


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