Superbugs Could Become a Top Cause of Death by 2050

If left unchecked, antibiotic-resistant bacteria could kill more people than cancer by 2050

Andrew Brookes/Corbis

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are no mere theoretical threat. In India last year, 58,000 children died of antibiotic-resistant infections. And in a new report conducted for the U.K. government, economist Jim O'Neill calculated that the global death toll to antibiotic resistant diseases could spike—to around 11 million deaths per year in the next 40 or so years, if things continue as they are.

Right now, says the BBC, roughly 700,000 people die from antibiotic-resistant diseases each year. A jump in the number of these deaths—to 10.7 million by 2050—would make these superbugs one of the biggest threats to human life, outpacing even cancer as a killer. Most of these deaths would be in Asia, the world's most populous continent. But according to the BBC, North America would see approximately 317,000 deaths to antibiotic resistant diseases each year.

Constant fear over the next big killer—most of which never amounts to much—can leave some people feeling tired of the hype. After all, new diseases are new, and no one really knows how they're going to shake out. Sometimes a disease grows into an epidemic like AIDS or one like Ebola; sometimes nothing much happens, if the disease burns out before it ever really gets going.

So it's easy to ignore the CDC's fretting over the emergence of so-called “nightmare bacteria”—deadly bacteria that are resistant to nearly every known class of antibiotics. But in the case of antibiotic resistance, the worry is real, and if steps aren't taken soon to address the problem it could spell a disaster for the whole concept of modern medicine—the one we've known since the introduction of penicillin in the 1940s.

According to the BBC, the researchers on the new study suggest that their dire prediction is a conservative one: “The review team believes its analysis represents a significant underestimate of the potential impact of failing to tackle drug resistance, as it did not include the effects on healthcare of a world in which antibiotics no longer worked.”

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