Drug-resistant bacteria killed almost 1.3 million people in 2019, scientists have estimated — more than either HIV or malaria. Antimicrobial resistance is spreading rapidly worldwide, and many people may not even be aware that it is likened to the next pandemic.

The potential threat 

The World Health Organization has described antibiotic resistance as “one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today”.

Antibiotics are sometimes needed to treat or prevent bacterial infections. But the overuse and misuse of antibiotics has helped some bacteria evolve to become resistant to them. This resistance is threatening our ability to treat common illnesses, leading to higher medical costs, longer hospital stays and increased mortality. 

A growing number of illnesses, including pneumonia, tuberculosis and gonorrhea, are becoming more difficult to treat as antibiotics are becoming a less effective tool against the bacteria that cause them.

Lower respiratory infections like pneumonia, which were responsible for 400,000 deaths, were the “most burdensome infectious syndrome” relating to bacterial AMR, researchers said. 

Death toll

It was directly responsible for an estimated 1.27 million deaths worldwide and was associated with an estimated 4.95 millions deaths. 

They also found that of the 23 different types of bacteria studied, drug resistance in only six types of bacteria contributed to 3.57 million deaths. 

70% of deaths that resulted from antimicrobial resistance were caused by resistance to antibiotics, often considered the first line of defense against severe infections. 

By some estimates, antimicrobial resistance could cause 10 million deaths per year by 2050. This would overtake cancer as a leading cause of death worldwide.

Antibiotic investment ‘essential’

Suggestions made in the paper included reducing human exposure to antibiotics in meat, minimizing the unnecessary use of antibiotics — for example, in treating viral infections — and preventing the need for antibiotics through vaccination programs and vaccine development.

Researchers also said it was “essential” to maintain investment in the development of new antibiotics.

Is this resistance contagious?

Yes. Resistance can also be spread from person to person. 

Research also shows that antimicrobial resistance can be spread through the environment, such as in unclean drinking water.

Ways to slow down antimicrobial resistance

Everything from how we take antibiotics to environmental pollution with antimicrobial chemicals, use of antibiotics in agriculture and even preservatives in our shampoo and toothpaste are all contributing to resistance.

Drug combinations

Combination therapy could hold the answer to slowing down antimicrobial resistance. This involves using several drugs in combination, rather than one drug on its own – making it more difficult for bacteria to evolve resistance, while still successfully treating an infection.