Drug resistant superbugs kill over 153,000 Americans a year - nearly seven times the CDC's estimates, new study suggests

Drug resistant superbugs kill over 153,000 Americans a year - nearly seven times the CDC's estimates, new study suggests

Originally published on Daily Mail Australia

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been massively underestimating the number of annual deaths caused by antibiotic resistance, a new report reveals. 

Superbugs are bacterial infections that are untreatable by most or all antibiotics. 

The CDC had estimated that about 23,000 people died of resistant infections in the US each year. 

But a new study from Washington University St Louis (WUSTL) found that that number is actually more than 153,000 - 6.6 times higher than the CDC had thought. 

Antibiotic resistance is considered a top public health priority by the US as well as the World Heath Organization, and it's getting worse. 

Much worse, according to the new review of death records. 

Researchers at WUSTL examined records of deaths from 2010. 

Using the known rate of antibiotic resistance in the various kinds of infections - 28.8 percent - they determined that at least 70,837 deaths in hospitals were from these superbugs. 

Applying the same rate to outpatient deaths, they found that that between 82,276 and 91,207 deaths were due to antibiotic resistant infections.  

That brought the total of superbug-related deaths to 153,113 for the year. 

In 2010, antibiotic resistant infections didn't even make the top 10 leading causes of death, according to the CDC's math. 

But, recalculated, antibiotic resistant infections would now rank as the third leading cause of death that year.

With antibiotic resistance rapidly spreading, the death toll from superbugs was likely far higher last year than the 153,000 lives it claimed in 2010 - and will kill more again this year. 

The numbers are horrifying, but not surprising, to lead study author Dr Jason Burnham.

He says that the low-ball numbers from the CDC are due largely to the way records of deaths are kept and reporting requirements - or rather lack thereof. 

Tracking antibiotic resistance deaths closely is 'not mandatory,' says Dr Burnham. 

'You can submit this information but it's not mandatory, so the data doesn't capture 100 percent of infections.' 

And even if it was mandatory to submit this information, antibiotic resistance deaths often get masked by lazy record-keeping.

'The people signing the death certificates are interns and residents,' says Dr Burnham. 

'So there's a lot of time pressure, and I think that's one of the main reasons,' these  

He references a University of Michigan study that found that about 20 percent of deaths involved an infection that 'contributed to that death.' 

'But the certficate might just say 'cancer, because it's a more major disease, but the infection was actually the main driver.

'So what gets put on the death certificate is no always 100 percent of the story.' 

If that's the case, then even Dr Burnham's new estimates are low. 

'We chose a middle ground' of what the death toll could be. 

'If we go with the high end, it's way high.

'If we go with the low end, it's still double.' 

These are scary but absolutely necessary revisions to what we thought we knew about antibiotic resistance and Dr Burnham says that awareness is necessary to combating it. 

'A lot of drug makers are pulling out of antibiotics,' he says.  

Public health officials are urging doctors to prescribe less antibiotics. 

So if a drug company were to make a new antibiotic to which there is not yet resistance, we would want it to be used very sparingly.

But drug companies 'want to make something people have to use for a long time,' which is part of why research on diseases that are chronic or recurring - like heart disease and cancer - are well-funded. 

So new, better antibiotics 'are not something they want to make.'

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