Drug resistance to kill ten million a year by 2050

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Copyright: Derren Ready, Wellcome Images

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  • There is an alarming rise in deadly antimicrobial resistance worldwide
  • It will cost the global economy US$100 trillion by 2050
  • The effects will hit the developing world most, especially Africa

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A world without effective drugs to fight common infections and diseases could be just around the corner, leading to 10 million deaths a year and costing the global economy US$100 trillion by 2050.

The “devastating burden” of antimicrobial resistance will be universal but hardest felt in the developing world, according to a review commissioned by the UK government and published 11 December.

The review warns that Asia and Africa will account for 90 per cent of resistance-related deaths by the middle of this century (see graph), with the latter’s economy hit around four times harder than the rest of the world. 

The human impact and the economic cost of inaction should spur governments to take immediate measures, the review says.

The review looked at how our ability to fight disease could be affected as resistance to drugs increases. It focused on three common bacteria — Escherichia coli, Klebsiella pneumonia, Staphylococcus aureus — along with HIV, malaria and tuberculosis.

Uncertainties surrounding future resistance rates led the authors to combine the findings of two different studies. The first assumed that all antimicrobial drugs would be completely ineffective in 15 years. The second used a more conservative but immediate overall resistance rate of 40 per cent with a doubling of the amount of people being infected. The authors deemed both these scenarios plausible. 

By 2050, over ten million people worldwide will die every year due to drug resistance, up from an estimated 800,000 today, the review predicts. This is more than current deaths from cancer, diabetes and cholera combined. Africa and Asia will bear the brunt of this rise with 4,150,000 and 4,730,000 deaths respectively. Even allowing for their relatively large populations, this is up to double the impact on developed nations.

The review also found that rising disease burdens could slash almost seven percentage points from Africa’s economic output compared to less extreme effects felt in Eurasia (about 2 per cent), Middle East and North Africa (about 1.5 per cent), Latin America (1.5 per cent) and high income countries (1.4 per cent).

In total, the review says, the world stands to lose up to US$100 trillion dollars by 2050, in effect wiping more than a year of today’s gross domestic product (GDP) off the global balance sheet. Delaying widespread resistance by just a single decade could shrink this bill to US$35 trillion.

“While we are yet to estimate how much it would cost the world to solve the problem of antimicrobial resistance, there is no doubt that the returns will be many orders of magnitude greater for society than the investment,” it says.

Brendan Wren, a professor from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, says the figures are surprisingly high and “alarming”, making the issue “more dangerous in the short term than climate change”.

But he believes there is still hope. It is unlikely that we will lose all antibiotic drugs so quickly, he says, and recent collaborations between industry and academics to tackle the issue are showing signs that it is a battle that can be won.
Link to the review on antimicrobial resistance