The United Nations (U.N.) is sounding the alarm about drug-resistant superbugs—pathogens that are on track to kill millions of additional people around the world.
In a new report Wednesday, the U.N.’s Environment Program warned that antimicrobial resistance—an umbrella term for bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi that are evolving to evade our medicines—could be responsible for an additional ten million deaths each year by 2050.
Already, drug-resistant infections directly kill millions of people around the world—1.27 million in 2019—and contribute to millions more deaths, per a 2022 study. In the U.S., more than 35,000 people die each year from antimicrobial-resistant infections, which can number 2.8 million annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Doctors, farmers, livestock producers and others routinely use antimicrobials—which include antiparasitics, antibiotics, antifungals and antivirals—to prevent and treat infections in humans, animals and crops. But microbes have been adapting to overcome these treatments essentially since their introduction—and now, environmental conditions might be increasing the risk of such superbugs, per the U.N.
“Climate change, pollution, changes in our weather patterns, more rainfall, more closely packed, dense cities and urban areas—all of this facilitates the spread of antibiotic resistance,” says Scott Roberts, an infectious diseases specialist at Yale School of Medicine who was not involved with the new report, to CNN’s Janelle Chavez. “And I am certain that this is only going to go up with time unless we take relatively drastic measures to curb this.”
In addition to the higher death count, antimicrobial resistance could also have big economic consequences: a decline of at least $3.4 trillion in gross domestic product (GDP) each year by 2030, which would send an additional 24 million people into extreme poverty, per the report. The economic toll will result from the “disruption of trade losses, livestock productivity and higher health care costs,” says Anthony D. So, a public health researcher at Johns Hopkins University, to ABC News’ David Oczos. Poorer countries will likely bear the brunt of those economic consequences, according to So.
Until now, global attention to superbugs has focused on the overuse of antimicrobials—they are prescribed too much and applied aggressively in agriculture, allowing resistant pathogens to evolve. But according to the new report, that’s just part of the story: Untreated wastewater discharges, population growth, urbanization, climate change and other factors are also creating favorable conditions for bugs to develop resistance to drugs.
Left unaddressed, these issues could “take humanity back to an era when even mild infections could become deadly,” per the report.
As temperatures rise and extreme weather events become more common and severe, drug-resistant microorganisms are flourishing. In particular, researchers are concerned that bugs are adapting to and thriving in a warmer climate, which could lead to increased rates of infection in humans. The typical human body temperature is between 97 and 99 degrees Fahrenheit, which has historically created an inhospitable environment for many harmful microorganisms, particularly fungi. However, as the planet warms, drug-resistant emerging fungi like Candida auris are now able to grow just fine in humans’ warm bodies.
With its report, the U.N. also urged government and corporate leaders to take action to halt the progression of antimicrobial resistance, such as by improving sanitation and sewage systems and decreasing pollution from the pharmaceutical, agricultural and healthcare industries.
“The same drivers that cause environment degradation are worsening the antimicrobial resistance problem,” says Inger Andersen, executive director of the U.N. Environment Program, in a statement. “Cutting down pollution is a prerequisite for another century of progress toward zero hunger and good health.”