I landed in Glasgow, Scotland last week seeking some much-needed rest and relaxation.
Instead, I was welcomed with blaring headlines in the local press
: “Antibiotic-resistant superbugs 'will kill 90,000 Britons by 2050'.” Proof, again, that when it comes to risks from infectious diseases, that there is no such thing as rest—particularly for those who face these threats head on and work to protect society from them.
Sadly, such doomsday proclamations are all too common in the press, and all too many of them, when read closely, are very often a lot of “sizzle” and little “steak.”
Unfortunately, the threat highlighted in the analysis
by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in the United States—the subject of those blaring headlines mentioned above—is all too real. And the United Kingdom is not even going to face the worst of it.
According to the OECD report, by 2050, Italy can expect up to 338,000 deaths from antibiotic-resistant infections, which is at the top, per capita in the analysis. Greece is next (with a mortality rate of roughly 14 deaths per 100,000 population, or 47,000), followed by Portugal (roughly 12 deaths per 100,000 population, or 38,000) and the United States, which comes in with a mortality rate of 8.98 per 100,000 population—meaning: by 2050, roughly 1 million Americans will have died from antibiotic-resistant infections. For the record, Britain’s mortality rate of 5 per 100,000 population ranks 20th in the OECD analysis.
Of course, the issue of antibiotic-resistant infections is hardly a new one. Entities ranging from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC
) to the World Health Organization (WHO
) have been warning us about the consequences of these bugs for decades and, thankfully, much of the world has taken at least some note, initiating programs such as antibiotic stewardship and hand hygiene initiatives.
However, in spite of these efforts, the threat is not going away. And, what makes the OECD report unique is that it arguably provides the first real assessment of the economic costs of these diseases—and, spoiler alert, it’s a pretty penny.
In the United States, for example, annual costs attributed to antibiotic-resistant infections could top $65 billion. Even smaller economies, such as Italy’s, could face costs exceeding $60 billion annually.
Notably, though, the OECD report also highlights the importance of initiatives designed to stem the tide of antibiotic resistance. Hand hygiene programs, for example, save an estimated 16,000 lives annually in the United States and cut health care costs attributed to resistant infections by $1.2 billion, according to the report. Similarly, the OECD reports that antibiotic stewardship saves an estimated 15,000 lives, and $600 million in total health care costs, in any given year. The OECD also suggests that rapid diagnostic testing could save 20,000 lives annually.
During my time in Scotland, I reached out to a number of public health experts for comment on the OECD findings, but did not receive a response prior to our deadline. However, Dr. Susan Hopkins, Deputy Director, National Infection Service, Public Health England, told the Sun newspaper
that “antibiotic-resistant infections present a global health challenge, leading to the equivalent of thousands of years lost due to ill health and disability or early death each year in this country and internationally.”
In other words, these bugs won’t be planning a vacation any time soon, so neither can we.
Brian P. Dunleavy is a medical writer and editor based in New York. His work has appeared in numerous health care-related publications. He is the former editor of Infectious Disease Special Edition.
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