Issue No. 5: To See Tomorrow’s Superbug Horrors, Look Abroad
Drug-resistant bacteria infect one American every 11 seconds. And they kill one every 15 minutes. Those are just some of the alarming figures in a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — and some analysts believe these numbers vastly underestimate the crisis.
As bad as this antimicrobial resistance crisis has become in the United States, it’s even worse in the developing world. “In India and Pakistan, Bangladesh, China, and countries in South America, the resistance problem is already endemic,” according to Colin Garner, CEO of Antibiotic Research UK. Globally, the World Health Organization estimates that drug-resistant bacteria, or superbugs, kill hundreds of thousands of people each year.
These superbugs have evolved to survive many common antibiotics. And they’re evolving to resist our strongest remaining treatments. Unless research scientists develop new and better therapies, we’ll soon enter a post-antibiotic era. Hospitals around the globe will become superbug breeding grounds. Doctors will no longer prescribe chemotherapies for fear of weakening cancer patients’ immune systems and putting them at risk of untreatable infections. Simple scrapes could prove deadly. Sadly, the state of AMR abroad offers us a glimpse into this dismal future.
Factors fueling the global AMR crisis
In the 1940s, antibiotics transformed the field of medicine. Suddenly, for the first time, doctors could cure typhoid, syphilis, cholera, and other deadly infectious diseases. As antibiotics became more and more accessible in both the developed and developing worlds, life expectancies soared.
While virtually everyone in the developed world now enjoys easy access to antibiotics, some patients in developing countries still struggle to obtain these drugs. In Uganda and India, for example, patients have trouble affording antibiotics due to high out-of-pocket costs and chronic shortages.
However, for the most part, more and more people are gaining access to these medicines. Antibiotic consumption worldwide rose 65 percent between 2000 and 2015, largely because antibiotic use in developing countries is approaching the levels seen in developed countries.
Unfortunately, people around the world — in developing and developed countries alike — overuse these “wonder drugs” and help fuel the development of resistance. Many people in all countries take antibiotics any time they feel slightly under the weather. Millions of patients even consume these drugs for sore throats and common colds, which are caused by viral infections that don’t respond to antibiotics.
While antibiotics require a prescription in the United States, they are available without one in more than 50 percent of nations, according to a 2015 World Health Organization report. Even still, the CDC estimates that nearly one in three antibiotic prescriptions in the United States is unnecessary.
This overuse fuels antibiotic resistance, or AMR. Every time people take antibiotics, some bacteria may survive, adapt, and multiply into stronger, more resistant strains that are readily transmissible. Each year, AMR claims 700,000 lives worldwide.
Superbugs have struck millions of people in lower-income countries, where patients already face significant health risks due to weak healthcare systems and poor sanitation.
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