Simple measures such as handwashing and preventing the misuse of antibiotics could make a huge difference in the fight against antimicrobial resistance, saving millions of lives.

Antimicrobial resistance is reaching dangerously high levels in all parts of the world, with some of the most common infections becoming difficult to treat.

A new report from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) says that failure to tackle antimicrobial resistance could lead to 2.4 million deaths from superbugs in Europe, North America and Australia over the next 30 years.

Image: OECD

Managing complications arising from antimicrobial resistance could cost up to $3.5 billion a year on average across the 33 countries analysed.

The report says southern Europe is particularly at risk, with Italy, Greece and Portugal predicted to top the list of OECD countries with the highest mortality rates from antimicrobial resistance. The United States, Italy and France are forecast to have the highest absolute death rates – almost 30,000 a year in the US alone by 2050.

But three out of four deaths could be prevented by investing just $2 per person a year on a package of measures to tackle antimicrobial resistance, the OECD predicts.

The report – titled Stemming the Superbug Tide: Just a Few Dollars More – recommends a “five-pronged assault” on antimicrobial resistance by; promoting better hygiene; ending over-prescription of antibiotics; testing patients quickly to determine whether they have viral or bacterial infections; delaying prescribing antibiotics; and media campaigns to raise public awareness.

Investment in a strategy that included only some of these measures would pay off within one year and save $4.8 billion a year, the report says.

Rising drug-resistance

Across OECD countries the proportion of drug-resistant infections increased from an average of 14% in 2005 to 17% in 2015, though this varied significantly from country to country. In Iceland, the Netherlands and Norway it was only about 5%, while in Turkey, Korea and Greece it was about 35%.

The situation is even worse in low- and middle-income countries: in Brazil, Indonesia and Russia, the proportion was 40% to 60%. Between now and 2050, antimicrobial resistance growth rates in these countries are expected to be four to seven times higher than in OECD countries.

Resistance to second- and third-line antibiotics – used when common drugs aren’t effective – is expected to be 70% higher across the OECD in 2030, compared to 2005, and resistance to third-line treatments will double in EU countries, the report says.