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Why 10 million people face superbug death by 2050

The United Nations advises mass gatherings, travel and antibiotic misuse are contributing to the problem.

Mass gatherings, environmental destruction, and misuse of medicines are contributing to the rise of superbugs, which have the potential to kill approximately 10 million people annually by 2050, the United Nations warns.

As a result of industrialisation, bacteria, parasites, viruses and even fungi are becoming increasingly resistant to antimicrobials, meaning some mild infections can no longer be treated.

The Bracing for Superbugs report, which was released at a global leaders conference in Barbados on Tuesday, predicts that by 2030 the problem will wipe US$3.4 trillion (A$4.9 trillion) off GDP annually and force a further 24 million people into extreme poverty.

Sections of the healthcare and agriculture industries have overused and misused antibiotics, fungicides, antiviral compounds, parasiticides, and disinfectant chemicals, resulting in increased antimicrobial resistance (AMR).

Left - Bacteria growing. Right -a crowd at the soccer in Australian colours
Large gatherings and international travel could exacerbate AMR. Source: Getty (File)

“Failing to address the global burden of AMR, including its environmental dimensions, could take humanity back to an era when even mild infections could become deadly,” the report declares.

What’s causing antimicrobial resistance?

Biological pollution from the agricultural and human healthcare sectors has been singled out as a key issue. Once microorganisms enter the environment through waste streams, they can come into contact with resistant strains, triggering spontaneous mutation, gene acquisition or the creation of new entities.

But it’s not just the release of microorganisms into the environment that is of concern. The report warns the quality of the water can also influence the growth of superbugs, with pH levels, oxygen content, temperature and nutrient availability all factors.

A pipe in Bangladesh leaching pollution into water.
Industrialised living is causing AMR growth across the world. Source: Getty (File)

“Pollution of air, soil, and waterways undermines the human right to a clean and healthy environment. The same drivers that cause environment degradation are worsening the antimicrobial resistance problem. The impacts of anti-microbial resistance could destroy our health and food systems,” United Nationals Environment Programme executive director Inger Andersen said. “Cutting down pollution is a prerequisite for another century of progress towards zero hunger and good health.”

The report also warns about the prevalence of resistant bacteria on food, adding evidence suggests selection for resistance can occur in the human gut microbiome.

Along with livestock, wildlife species including birds, small mammals and insects are also known to carry resistant disease strains that can be passed onto humans.

The UN expects unsustainable population growth, urbanisation and increasing demand for food and healthcare to make the issue worse. Extreme weather and higher temperatures resulting from climate change will also contribute to the emergence and spread of AMR.

Large gatherings like sporting events as well as international travel are also likely to contribute to the spread of disease, as was seen during the Covid-19 pandemic.

What can we do about antimicrobial resistance?

There are a number of key measures the UN would like to see implemented to slow the development of AMR:

  • Strengthen systems for the regulation of antimicrobials

  • Increased global efforts to improve sanitisation

  • Integrate environmental considerations into AMR action plans

  • Establish international AMR indication standards

  • Sustainable funding for tackling AMR

  • Increased monitoring, surveillance and research

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