Just $2 per person a year could halt deadly superbugs, OECD says

LONDON, (Reuters) - Halting the rise of deadly drug-resistant “superbug” infections that kill millions around the world could cost just $2 per person a year, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) said on Wednesday.

Describing drug resistance as “one of the biggest threats to modern medicine”, the OECD said, however, that if nothing is done, superbugs could kill some 2.4 million people in Europe, North America and Australia alone over the next 30 years.

The problem of infectious bugs becoming drug-resistant has been a feature of medicine since the discovery of the first antibiotic, penicillin, in 1928. Often called antimicrobial resistance or AMR, the problem has grown in recent years as bugs resistant to multiple drugs have developed and drugmakers have cut back investment in this field.

The World Health Organization has warned that unless something drastic is done, a post-antibiotic era - where basic healthcare becomes life-threatening due to risk of infection during routine operations - could arrive this century.

A 2014 British government-backed review estimated that by 2050, the issue could kill an extra 10 million people a year and cost up to $100 trillion if it is not brought under control.

In a report, the OECD said “a short-term investment to stem the superbug tide would save lives and money.”

It proposed a “five-pronged assault” on AMR, including promoting better hygiene, ending over-prescription of antibiotics, rapidly testing patients to ensure they get the right drug for infections, delaying antibiotic prescriptions and delivering mass media campaigns.

The report found some reasons for cautious optimism, with the average growth of drug resistance slowing down across the OECD, but added there were “serious causes for concern”.

Across the OECD, resistance to second and third-line antibiotics – normally powerful drugs that present a last line of defense against infections – is expected to be 70 percent higher in 2030 compared to AMR rates in 2005.

In low and middle-income countries, drug resistance is high and projected to grow rapidly. In Brazil, Indonesia and Russia, for example, between 40 percent and 60 percent of infections are already drug resistant, compared to an OECD average of 17 percent, and AMR rates are forecast to grow between 4 and 7 times faster than the OECD average between now and 2050.

Tim Jinks, a drug-resistance expert at the Wellcome Trust global health charity, said the OECD report showed “how simple, cost-effective surveillance, prevention and control methods could save lives”.

Superbugs are “a fundamental threat to global health and development,” he said, and “investing to tackle the problem now will save lives and deliver big pay-offs in the future.”

Editing by Marie-Louise Gumuchian