Another silent killer is lurking in our community, and it’s not COVID-19.

The threat is antimicrobial resistance – better known as an onslaught of “superbugs.” These are bacteria and fungi that can no longer be treated with existing antimicrobial drugs.

Between 2017 and 2019, Washington state authorities uncovered 77 infections from the drug-resistant bacteria CRAB (Carbapenem-resistant Acinetobacter baumannii) inside its health care facilities. In Spokane County in 2020, there were nearly 58 drug-resistant staph infections, MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureas), per 100,000 hospitalized people. That’s higher than the state average of 45 per 100,000. Both rates are considerably higher than the most recent national data, less than 3 per 100,000 in 2016.

This is not just a local problem. Superbug infections kill more than 35,000 people a year nationwide, and could kill up to 10 million people annually by 2050 if we fail to take action, according to the World Health Organization.

As an infectious diseases specialist at the University of Washington, I’ve lost patients because of a lack of effective antibiotics and other antimicrobial medicines. Antimicrobials have saved countless lives, but they are not keeping up with resistance. This is because when a bacterium or fungus is exposed repeatedly to a drug designed to kill it, it may evolve into a hardier version of itself. These superbug infections can be especially dangerous in hospitals.

We urgently need solutions. Thankfully, there are ways we can stop this looming threat.

Paul S. Pottinger, MD, is a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Washington School of Medicine and co-director of the University of Washington Medical Center Montlake’s Antimicrobial Stewardship Program.

Read the full Spokesman-Review piece here.