Superbug infections killed 1.2 million people in 2019, according to a study published Thursday, which the authors described as the most comprehensive assessment of the impact of antimicrobial resistance to date.
The number of deaths means that infections with antibiotic-resistant bacteria are directly responsible for more deaths than HIV/AIDS or malaria.
The report, published in The Lancet, also found that antimicrobial resistance played a role in up to 3.68 million other deaths.
“These new data reveal the true extent of antimicrobial resistance worldwide and are a clear signal that we must act now to combat the threat,” said study co-author Chris Murray of the University of Washington. .
While previous estimates indicated that superbugs could kill 10 million people a year by 2050, this study shows that this milestone could be reached much earlier, he added.
“We need to leverage this data to course-correct and drive innovation if we are to stay ahead in the race against antimicrobial resistance.”
Estimates for 204 countries and territories were based on data from a wide range of sources, including public health systems, pharmaceutical surveillance networks, previous studies, etc.
Methodological assumptions had to be made for regions of the world where data was lacking, particularly low- and middle-income countries, the authors acknowledged.
They called for more investment in laboratories and research facilities in these areas.
– Bacteria-eating virus –
Antimicrobial resistance occurs when bacteria evolve to be immune to antibiotics.
The World Health Organization has declared it a global health crisis, setting up a task force to study alternative treatments.
One area of research involves bacteria-eating viruses called bacteriophages or simply phages.
A case study published Tuesday in Nature Communications describes how Belgian doctors used the therapy to treat a patient whose leg had been infected for almost two years.
Anais Eskenazi, who co-wrote the case study and treated the patient, described how a lab in Georgia found the virus in a sample of sewage water – where phages are abundant due to masses of bacteria .
They isolated one that they believed would target the patient’s specific superbug, antibiotic-resistant Klebsiella pneumoniae.
The treatment can be applied intravenously, orally or topically – outside the body – Eskenazi told AFP.
“In this case, we used topical administration…the wound was rinsed with a solution containing phages,” she said.
Combined with antibiotics, phage therapy cured the infection in three months, according to the study.
While phages have been used to treat infections in Russia and Eastern Europe for over a century, they are largely neglected in the EU and US.
Ms Eskenazi said potential reasons for this could include fear of exposure to viruses – although phages pose no threat to people.
“Bacteriophages are not able to infect human cells, they are specific to bacteria,” Ms Eskenazi said.
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