We’ve been warned many times recently that the world is going to be in trouble if we don’t tackle the growing problem of drug resistant microbes, but a harrowing new review is serving as a big fat reality slap that this issue is very real, and needs to change. If nothing is done, infections caused by antimicrobial resistant “superbugs” could kill an extra 10 million people each year worldwide by 2050, overtaking cancer. Not only that, but it’ll cost the world an estimated $100 trillion (£63tn).
“To put that in context, the annual GDP [gross domestic product] of the UK is about $3tn, so this would be the equivalent of around 35 years without the UK contribution to the global economy,” study author and economist Jim O’Neill told the BBC.
Although many are aware that antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is already a global problem, for a large number of people the threat may seem too distant to be worthy of urgent action. Furthermore, no one has previously attempted to predict what the human and economic cost of drug resistance could be if left unchecked, according to The Telegraph.
It is for these reasons that UK Prime Minister David Cameron requested a comprehensive review of AMR, which was conducted by researchers at professional services company KPMG and research organization RAND. They were asked to model the future impact of AMR based on scenarios for increasing drug resistance and economic growth. The teams estimated how resistance could affect the labor force through sickness and death, and how this would affect the global economy. And the results aren’t pretty.
In the absence of action, by 2050, 10 million people will die each year from infections caused by resistant microbes, which is considerably more than the current figure of 700,000. The reduction in population and costs of illness would also shrink the global economic output by between 2 and 3%, and rack up bills of $100 trillion (£63 trillion).
The Review on Antimicrobial Resistance
While these figures are not certain forecasts, the researchers do think that they are likely underestimates given the fact that only a subset of microbes and health issues were taken into consideration due to gaps in data. Of those investigated, E. coli, malaria and tuberculosis are predicted to have the biggest impact.
Now that the study has alerted us of the scale of this looming problem, the researchers are extending the work to investigate how the issue could be tackled. This includes examining how drug use could be changed to discourage the rise of resistance, and how to increase new drug development. Over the past decade and a half, pharmaceutical companies have become disinterested in antibiotic research due to strict regulations and poor financial returns, but gradually this is beginning to change.
The researchers concluded that solving the issue would be significantly cheaper than ignoring it, and are optimistic that with a global concerted effort, the right steps could be taken to tackle the problem.