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Antimicrobial resistance: millions of lives and trillions of dollars?

28 May 2016
by Guest author

AMR reportJim O’Neill, Commercial Secretary to the UK Treasury

After I was appointed chair of the Review on Antimicrobial Resistance, one of the first questions I set out to answer was what would be the impact if no steps are taken to tackle rising resistance. While we can never know exactly what would happen in the future, I felt that any debates about the cost or difficulty of dealing with resistance should be informed by the far greater costs of inaction. Already resistant infections are estimated to kill at least 700,000 people a year, and in the United States alone they cost 20 billion USD in additional healthcare costs. We hired the consultants KPMG and RAND to examine what would the world look like in 2050 if we did not control resistance and to compare this to what would happen if resistance was tackled properly.

They both took current levels of hospital acquired infections for klebsiella pneumoniae, e. coli and  staph aureus, as well as total infection rates for TB, HIV and Malaria, and examined what would happen if resistance rates in these areas rose to 40 percent. This would mean that the first line treatment would fail 40% of the time. This figure was chosen as it was similar to the rates of k. pneumoniae that are resistant to carbapenems in parts of southern Europe, it is also similar to rates found for methicillin resistant staph aureus (MRSA) and multidrug-resistant TB (MDR-TB) in some parts of the world. As part of their research they presumed that a person with a resistant infection in the future would have the same outcome chances as someone today who gets a resistant infection, the levels of resistance would simply rise. They also presumed that rates of hospital acquired infections would double as people would carry the infections for longer making it easier for them to spread.

What the researchers found, using the above assumptions, is that if we do not take the appropriate steps to stop drug-resistant infections, the death toll could rise from 700,000 today to 10 million by 2050. This would mean that a person would die every three seconds from these six drug-resistant infections, and more people would die than are currently killed by cancer. The consequences of inaction would therefore be huge. KPMG and RAND, then fed these deaths into an economic model for what the world would look like by 2050; similar to the model that I used to make my BRICs prediction 15 years ago. The only change they made in their standard assumptions was that people who would die of AMR would no longer be able to work and consume goods. They ignored the impact of people being sick for longer, the indirect costs such as surgery being more complicated, the healthcare costs on society, the disruption to a family that can be caused by illness, and anything else that could cause productivity to change from resistant infections. Despite these conservative assumptions they found that over the next 35 years resistance would knock 100 trillion USD off the world’s production if we do not act to stop AMR. To put that in context that is more than the UK is expected to produce between now and 2050, and more importantly is far greater than the cost of tackling the problem.

Last week I had the pleasure of releasing the Review on AMR’s final report, where I highlighted ten interventions that the world needs to take to tackle resistance. The most important four being: first, to introduce rapid diagnostics so that doctors know whether or not a patient needs an antibiotic before prescribing them. Second, we need public awareness campaigns so that people know what resistant infections are and how to prevent them. Third, we need to find better incentives for people who come up with new drugs so that it is profitable; there has not been a new class of antibiotics since the 1980s. In order to tackle drug resistant infections we need to change that. Finally, we need reduce the amount of antibiotics we give out in agriculture. At the moment some farmers give out antibiotics to healthy animals so that they grow faster, and the whole of society picks up the cost of this though resistance. This is not acceptable; I am therefore delighted to see that the OECD is taking the lead on research into how to curb unnecessary antibiotic use in agriculture. More needs to be done to prevent this.

When costing our interventions my team and I estimated that it would cost up to 4 billion USD a year to avert this global catastrophe. I no longer work in investments, but spending  4 billion USD to prevent a crisis that will cost trillions and kill 10 million people a year is excellent value for money. From pharmaceutical companies to farmers, and from states to individuals, we all need to start acting now before it is too late.

Useful links

Antimicrobial Resistance in G7 Countries and Beyond G7 Health Ministers Meeting, Berlin, 8 October 2015

OECD Workshop: Economics of Antimicrobial Use and Resistance in the Livestock Sector 12 October 2015

Jim O’Neill will be participating in the Meeting of the OECD Council at Ministerial Level (MCM) on 1 and 2 June 2016, under the chairmanship of Chile, with Finland, Hungary and Japan as Vice-Chairs.

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