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More people are dying from infections that don't respond to conventional antibiotics

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

As if the COVID pandemic isn't enough, another global health crisis is looming - drug-resistant bacteria. You may have heard them called superbugs. A new study finds that antibiotic resistance is more of a problem than many researchers had previously thought, and it finds that bacteria continue to mutate to evade some of modern medicine's most powerful drugs. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: A new study in the medical journal The Lancet finds that the degree to which bacteria are mutating to evade antibiotics is happening at a far more rapid pace than many researchers had previously forecast. The paper calculates that in 2019, antibiotic-resistant infections directly killed 1.2 million people and played a role in 5 million more deaths worldwide.

CHRIS MURRAY: That resistance out there is actually now one of the leading causes of death in the world.

BEAUBIEN: Chris Murray, the director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, is one of the authors of the new study. Murray and his colleagues analyzed health data from 204 countries to try to tally the growing impact of antibiotic resistance globally.

MURRAY: The more we use the antibiotics, the more likely we are to see resistant pathogens spread.

BEAUBIEN: These resistant pathogens are killing people not just in the infectious disease ward of a hospital; they cause untreatable blood infections, new strains of pneumonia, relentless urinary tract infections, gangrenous wounds and deadly cases of sepsis, among other conditions. And these dangerous new strains of bacteria are emerging all over the world.

MURRAY: In the past, I think we all thought that in some sense you had to be rich enough to use a lot of antibiotics inappropriately to have this problem. But that's not the case.

BEAUBIEN: And just as the COVID pandemic has demonstrated, a pathogen that emerges in one part of the world can now quickly show up just about any place else. Dr. Helen Boucher is an infectious disease physician at Tufts Medical Center in Boston.

HELEN BOUCHER: It's a wicked problem that affects everybody everywhere. So we see problems with antibiotic resistance in healthy people, outpatients, young women, school teachers with urinary tract infections, to critical care patients who have pneumonia in the ICU and COVID patients who get so-called secondary bacterial infections after their COVID.

BEAUBIEN: Boucher is now the interim dean of Tufts University School of Medicine. But earlier in her career, in the mid-'90s as a doctor, she remembers starting to see lab reports for patients in which one antibiotic after another was coming up as resistant.

BOUCHER: I also sadly remember within the last 10 years having to send a patient home on hospice because I couldn't treat their infection.

BEAUBIEN: Which she says was devastating and counter to her vision of herself as a doctor.

BOUCHER: That's not something we sign up to do as infectious disease doctors, right? We cure infections. We help to cure infections so that the patient can live their full life. So this evolution to a time where we have patients for whom we don't have any antibiotic options has happened during my career, and it's awful.

BEAUBIEN: Boucher says this new study is important because it helps to quantify how much of a problem antibiotic resistance is globally so that steps can be taken to try to protect the effectiveness of existing drugs and, hopefully, develop new ones.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL LAURENCE'S "MADELEINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.