Can America stave off the superbug apocalypse?

Drug-resistant infections could be deadlier than cancer by 2050. What can America do to prepare?

(Image credit: ROYALTYSTOCKPHOTO/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY/Science Photo Library/Corbis)

Americans are afraid of getting cancer, and rightfully so. This year alone, about 589,430 in the nation are expected to die from it. That's the country's second-leading cause of death.

But a scarier, lesser-known health threat is on the horizon: the superbug. Drug-resistant infections are a growing national and international concern. Since the 1940s, we've been using antibiotics to cure disease and stave off infection. Over time disease-causing microbes — for example, the one that causes strep throat — have grown resistant to our treatments.

Each year, superbugs infect roughly two million Americans, killing 23,000, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. And in the coming decades, those numbers might be drastically worse if the problem is left unchecked.

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In 2050, 10 million people worldwide could die of superbugs, 317,000 of those in North America, a 2014 report commissioned by British Prime Minister David Cameron shows. Worldwide, the superbug is poised to become a more deadly global epidemic than cancer. And if that threat isn't enough, the report committee, chaired by economist Jim O'Neill, warns there's going to be a hefty price to pay for the inflated death toll: $100 trillion of the world's total gross domestic product.

Scientists have known about the threat superbugs pose for decades, yet misconceptions among physicians and the public abound: Antibiotics are incorrectly prescribed up to 50 percent of the time, the CDC says. Patients don't take them properly, either. Also, food-producing animals are often fed antibiotics. Then their drug-resistant bacteria spread to humans when meat isn't cooked properly, and then from person to person in facilities like hospitals.

The result sounds terrifying. Gizmodo's podcast Meanwhile in the Future imagines a hypothetical 2025 where the government quarantines thousands of people with bacterial infections. Experts told host Rose Eveleth everything from routine body piercings to open heart surgery could become way more dangerous in a future where superbugs are left unchecked.

There are bright spots, though, like growing concern at the top levels of government. The White House released a five-year action plan in March and held its first-ever superbug summit earlier this month.

"The U.K. government has been a strong leader. The White House has at least said the right things and they've committed funds to this," said David Perlin, director of the Public Health Research Institute at Rutgers University. "Will those funds be utilized appropriately? It remains to be seen how exactly they're going to be spent."

Perlin wants the government's commitment to go a step further, perhaps by creating a dedicated office within the National Institutes of Health or another federal agency, similar to the one that's set up for HIV/AIDS. Not for the sake of bureaucracy, but to bring professionals dealing with superbugs together to actually develop solutions on the ground.

While politicians, pharmaceutical companies, and scientists can't ever completely eradicate the threat of superbugs, Perlin said he has reason to be more optimistic about slowing their spread than he was just five years ago. Smaller companies have taken to doing the work pharmaceutical giants often won't: discovering new antibiotics.

"I don't want people to feel that 'Oh, it's just hopeless and there's really nothing we could do,'" Perlin said. "And we need to do more. We need to recruit more individuals, researchers, small companies, large companies. We need to make this a national priority."

We're armed with striking details about the worst-case public health scenarios drug resistance could create. Now, which future superbugs have us face depends on experts' ability to collaborate across disciplines and across countries.

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