Report: Superbugs a 'looming global crisis'

As the hype over Ebola begins to ebb--though the outbreak in West Africa hasn't--a new report issued by the British government highlights antimicrobial-resistant infections as an even bigger threat to public health.

Failing to fight these superbugs will cause 10 million deaths a year and cost $100 trillion per year by 2050, warns the report from the Review on Antimicrobial Resistance, produced by two research groups commissioned by British Prime Minister David Cameron to assess the threat.   

"As big as that number might seem, it almost definitely underestimates the true economic cost," former Goldman Sachs Chief Economist Jim O'Neill, who led the review, told Reuters.

Antimicrobial-resistant infections contribute to at least 70,000 deaths around the world each year, the report states, noting that overuse of antibiotics is one of the major forces driving the problem.  

"If we fail to act, we are looking at an almost unthinkable scenario where antibiotics no longer work and we are cast back into the dark ages of medicine," Cameron wrote in the review.

The report notes that E. coli, malaria and tuberculosis are the biggest drivers of the study's results, with malaria resistance accounting for the most fatalities and E. coli accounting for the greatest economic cost.

Hospitals in the U.S. have plenty of experience grappling with the damaging effects of antibiotic resistance amid the spread of bacterial infections such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE). This is in part due to the fact that nearly 80 percent of hospitals use inappropriate or unnecessary antibiotic combinations, FierceHealthcare previously reported.

In efforts to fight this scourge, many healthcare leaders have instituted antibiotic stewardship programs to raise awareness about the problem of over-prescription and foster proper handling of antibiotics, FierceHealthcare reported. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also advise facilities to track drug-resistant bacteria, screen for and take steps to prevent hospital-acquired infections, and promote the development of new antibiotics.

Indeed, a newly developed treatment offers a sliver of hope for combatting the growth of drug-resistant bacteria, according to a statement from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC).

A team lead by Ronald C. Montelaro, Ph.D., co-director of the University of Pittsburgh Center for Vaccine Research (CVR), synthetically engineered cationic antimicrobial peptides, or "eCAPs," similar to a sequence of amino acids found on the end of an HIV surface protein, according to the findings published in the American Society for Microbiology's online journal. These eCAPs, when tested against a natural antimicrobial peptide and a standard antibiotic, were drastically more effective in inhibiting the growth of test bacteria strains.

Montelaro and his team plan to continue clinical trials to develop the treatment "to help patients who have exhausted existing antibiotic options," according to the UPMC statement.

Efforts like these echo the conclusion of the Review on Antimicrobial Resistance report, which warns: "It would be unforgiveable if the great progress made in combatting infectious diseases could be threatened by the lack of new drugs that are within reach, or for lack of common sense investment in infrastructure that keeps us safe from avoidable infections.

"This is a looming global crisis, yet one which the world can avert if we take action soon."

To learn more:
- check out the report (.pdf)
- read the Reuters article
- check out the CVR study 
- read the UPMC statement