Superbugs to ‘kill millions’ by 2050 unless countries act

Strains of bacteria that resist the effects of drugs designed to kill them are developing as humans consume ever more antibiotics. (AFP)
Updated 08 November 2018

Superbugs to ‘kill millions’ by 2050 unless countries act

  • Drug-resistant bacteria killed more than 33,000 people in Europe in 2015
  • Strains of bacteria are developing that resist the effects of drugs designed to kill them

PARIS: Millions of people in Europe, North America and Australia will die from superbug infections unless countries prioritize fighting the growing threat posed by bacteria immune to most known drugs, experts predicted Wednesday.
The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) warned of “disastrous consequences” for public health care and spending unless basic hospital hygiene is boosted and unnecessary antibiotic use slashed.
Drug-resistant bacteria killed more than 33,000 people in Europe in 2015, according to new research published separately this week.
In a landmark report, the OECD said 2.4 million people could die from superbugs by 2050 and said the cost of treating such infections would balloon to an average of $3.5 billion a year in each country included in its analysis.
Michele Cecchini, lead on public health at the OECD, said that countries were already spending an average of 10 percent of their health care budgets on treating antimicrobial-resistant (AMR) bugs.
“AMR costs more than the flu, more than HIV, more than tuberculosis. And it will cost even more if countries don’t put into place actions to tackle this problem,” he said.
As humans consume ever more antibiotics — either through prescriptions or agriculture and livestock products given medicines to stave off infection — strains of bacteria are developing that resist the effects of drugs designed to kill them.
In low and middle-income countries, resistance is already high: in Indonesia Brazil and Russia up to 60 percent of bacterial infections are already resistant to at least one antibiotic.
And the growth of AMR infections is predicted to be between four and seven times faster by 2030 than currently.
“Such high resistance rates in health care systems, which are already weakened by constrained budgets, will create the conditions for an enormous death toll that will be mainly borne by newborns, very young children and the elderly,” the report said.
“Even small cuts in the kitchen, minor surgery or diseases like pneumonia could become life-threatening.”
Perhaps more worrying is the prediction made by the OECD that resistance to so-called 2nd- and 3rd-line antibiotics — break-glass-in-case-of-emergency infection treatments — will balloon by 70 percent by 2030.
“These are antibiotics that as far as possible we don’t want to use because we want these as back up,” Cecchini said.
“Essentially, we are using more when we should use less and we are running out of our best options in case of emergency.”
The group, which advises the World Health Organization on public health initiatives, said the only way to avert disaster was to implement immediate, sector-wide changes in behavior.
The report called on health care professionals to ensure better universal hygiene standards in hospitals and clinics by insisting all staff wash their hands and conform to stricter safety regimes.
It also suggested resistance could be fought with better and quicker testing to determine if an infection is viral — meaning antibiotics are useless — or bacterial.
New swab tests can give a result in a matter of minutes, and Cecchini also put forward the idea of “delayed prescriptions” to dent antibiotic overuse by making patients wait three days before picking up their antibiotics — roughly the time it takes for a viral infection to run its course.
In trials of the technique, two thirds of patients given delayed prescriptions for antibiotics never collected their medicine.
The OECD said such changes would cost as little as $2 per person per year and would save millions of lives and billions of dollars by mid-century.
“They would decrease burden of AMR in these countries by 75 percent,” said Cecchini. “It would pay for itself in a few months and would produce substantial savings.”


High on ease, low on nutrition: instant-noodle diet harms Asian kids

Updated 15 October 2019

High on ease, low on nutrition: instant-noodle diet harms Asian kids

  • In the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia, an average of 40 percent of children aged five and below are malnourished
  • Indonesia is the world’s second-biggest consumer of instant noodles, behind China

MANILA: A diet heavy on cheap, modern food like instant noodles that fills bellies but lacks key nutrients has left millions of children unhealthily thin or overweight in southeast Asia, experts say.
The Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia have booming economies and rising standards of living, yet many working parents do not have the time, money or awareness to steer clear of food hurting their kids.
In those three nations, an average of 40 percent of children aged five and below are malnourished, higher than the global average of one-in-three, according to a report out Tuesday from UNICEF, the UN children’s agency.
“Parents believe that filling their children’s stomach is the most important thing. They don’t really think about an adequate intake of protein, calcium or fiber,” Hasbullah Thabrany, a public health expert in Indonesia, said.
UNICEF said the harm done to children is both a symptom of past deprivation and a predictor of future poverty, while iron deficiency impairs a child’s ability to learn and raises a woman’s risk of death during or shortly after childbirth.
To give some sense of scale to the problem, Indonesia had 24.4 million children under five last year, while the Philippines had 11 million and Malaysia 2.6 million, UNICEF data show.
Mueni Mutunga, UNICEF Asia nutrition specialist, traced the trend back to families ditching traditional diets for affordable, accessible and easy-to-prepare “modern” meals.
“Noodles are easy. Noodles are cheap. Noodles are quick and an easy substitute for what should have been a balanced diet,” she said.
The noodles, which cost as little as 23 US cents a packet in Manila, are low on essential nutrients and micronutrients like iron and are also protein-deficient while having high fat and salt content, Mutunga added.
Indonesia was the world’s second-biggest consumer of instant noodles, behind China, with 12.5 billion servings in 2018, according to the World Instant Noodles Association.
The figure is more than the total consumed by India and Japan put together.
Nutrient-rich fruits, vegetables, eggs, dairy, fish and meat are disappearing from diets as the rural population moves to the cities in search of jobs, the UNICEF report said.
Though the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia are all considered middle-income countries by World Bank measures, tens of millions of their people struggle to make enough money to live.
“Poverty is the key issue,” said T. Jayabalan, a public health expert in Malaysia, adding that households where both parents work need quickly made meals.
Low-income households in Malaysia depend largely on ready-made noodles, sweet potatoes and soya-based products as their major meals, he said.
Sugar-rich biscuits, beverages and fast food also pose problems in these countries, according to experts.
Rolling back the influence instant noodles have on the daily lives, and health, of people in southeast Asia will likely require government intervention, they said.
“Promotion and advertising is extremely aggressive,” said Thabrany, the Indonesian public health expert.
“There is massive distribution. They (instant noodles) are available everywhere, even in the most remote places.”