More than 1.2 million people died just last year in the world due to bacteria resistant to antimicrobial drugs, according to the largest study on the impact of this phenomenon at a global level. This figure is equivalent to an average of almost 3,500 deaths every day.
The poorest countries are the most affected, but resistance to antimicrobial drugs is a threat to global health, including Latin America, according to the report. In addition to the 1.2 million deaths caused directly by antibiotic-resistant bacteria, the report estimated that resistance played some role in diseases responsible for another nearly 5 million deaths in 2020.
A 2014 study on the subject estimated that antimicrobial resistance (AMR) would cause 10 million deaths per year in 2050, Mexican scientist Gisela Robles Aguilar, a researcher in the global burden of disease and resistance to antimicrobials, explained at the Big Data Institute of the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, and one of the authors of the study.
“Now we know that we are much closer to reaching that number than we thought, in the same year, it is estimated that AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) caused 870,000 deaths globally and malaria 650,000.
The authors of the study say that it is necessary to urgently invest in new drugs and use existing ones more responsibly. The overuse of antibiotics for minor infections in recent years has led to them becoming less effective against serious infections. People are dying from common infections that were once treatable because the bacteria that cause them have become resistant to treatment.
The estimate of global deaths from resistant bacterial infections was based on an analysis of 204 countries by an international team of researchers led by the University of Washington in the United States. The study was published in the medical journal The Lancet.
Most of the deaths from resistant bacteria were due to lower respiratory tract infections, such as pneumonia, and infections in the blood, which can cause sepsis. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, was particularly deadly, according to the study. This strain of Staphylococcus aureus bacteria has become resistant to several antibiotics, including penicillin and methicillin. Escherichia coli and other bacteria were also linked by the study to high levels of drug resistance.
The researchers say that young children are most at risk
Approximately one in five deaths related to antibiotic resistance was recorded among children under 5 years of age. The highest number of deaths took place in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia (25 out of 100,000 deaths). The lowest incidence was in high-income countries (15 per 100,000 deaths).
Of the 1.3 million deaths from infections caused by resistant bacteria, “90,000 occurred in Latin America in 2020,” Robles Aguilar said. “The highest number of deaths was recorded in the central region of Latin America, made up of Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama and Venezuela, with 28,500 deaths directly attributable to AMR, and 110,000 deaths related to RAM.
“The countries of the Andean region, Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru, also face the challenge of combating antimicrobial resistance, since 12% of deaths from infection in those countries were caused by an organism resistant to antibiotics,” added the scientific.
Regarding the type of infections, the scientist pointed out that “the organism responsible for the highest number of deaths in the region was Escherichia coli, which caused approximately 1 in 6 deaths attributable to AMR in the region.”
“This organism is commonly found in the digestive system, but increased exposure to antibiotics contributes to the development of resistance mechanisms. Thus, common infections, such as urinary system infections, are more difficult to combat”, she explains.
“Another organism kept under surveillance in the Latin American region is Staphylococcus aureus, which was responsible for 15,500 deaths in the Latin American region, mainly causing hospital-acquired blood infections.”
For Professor Chris Murray, a researcher at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington and one of the study’s authors, the new data reveals the true scale of antimicrobial resistance worldwide. They are also a clear signal that immediate action is required “if we want to stay one step ahead in the race against antimicrobial resistance,” the expert noted.
Dr. Ramanan Laxminarayan, of the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics, and Policy, in Washington, DC, said global spending to tackle resistant infections must rise to levels seen for other diseases. “Spending should be directed at preventing infections in the first place, making sure existing antibiotics are used appropriately and judiciously, and bringing new antibiotics to market,” he said.
Sally Davies, an expert on antibiotic resistance and a former senior health adviser to the British government, has said in the past that resistance is a “silent pandemic” that the world must deal with. Urgent and global actions during the current Covid pandemic can show the way forward.
“One of the great achievements of the last two years is the commitment to adopt infection prevention and control measures, basic hygiene measures and vaccination campaigns. These types of measures are also necessary to combat the growing resistance of organisms to antibiotics, and now is a good time to encourage a similar commitment by different social actors,” Gisela Robles Aguilar declared.
“Access to information in a fast, open and transparent way has contributed to combating Covid-19 and is essential to monitor the increase in the use of antibiotics in the health sector as well as in the veterinary and food production,” added the scientist.
“We need to constantly measure antibiotic use and resistance in order to understand the problem of resistance and generate solutions. And, of course, the responsible use of antibiotics is a task in which we can all contribute to.