Bacterial Pathogens Killed 7.7 million in 2019 – But Barely Attract Research Funding
Bacterial infections are the secong leading cause of deaths in 2019.

Some 7.7 million people are estimated to have been killed by bacterial pathogens in 2019 according to a study published in The Lancet this week, making this the second leading cause of death globally in2019. 

Some 33 bacterial pathogens across 11 infectious syndromes were linked to 13.6% of all global deaths in 2019, according to the study, which was led by the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington

Almost 55% of these bacterial deaths came from just five pathogens – Staphylococcus aureus, Escherichia coli, Streptococcus pneumoniae, Klebsiella pneumoniae, and Pseudomonas aeruginosa. 

The worst impact of these bacteria is in sub-Saharan Africa, where the mortality rate is 230 deaths per 100,000 population in comparison to 52 deaths per 100,000 in high-income countries. 

“Effective antimicrobials exist for all 33 of the investigated bacteria, yet much of the disproportionately high burden in LMICs might be attributable to inadequate access to effective antimicrobials, weak health systems, and insufficient prevention programmes,” the study added. 

In January, the IHME reported on deaths associated with 23 pathogens and pegged the number of deaths due to antimicrobial-resistant pathogens at 4.95 million. However, the current study analyses deaths caused by bacteria that are both susceptible and resistant to antimicrobials. 

More R&D funding 

Bacterial pathogens such as E coli and K pneumoniae are collectively associated with more deaths than S pneumoniae or tuberculosis, but they receive much less funding and attention than other diseases. 

“A 2020 analysis of global funding for infectious disease research found that HIV research was awarded $42 billion in funding compared with $1.4 billion for research on Staphylococcus spp and $800 million for E coli research over the same period (between 2000 and 2017),” the paper stated. 

IHME director Chris Murray urged those who invest in research and development to take a “pathogen view” when making decisions, adding that governmental research authorities and private players like pharmaceutical companies need to keep this in mind when developing new antibiotics and vaccines. 

It also helps get a sense in different parts of the world. We put a lot of emphases, appropriately so, on HIV, TB, and malaria but we probably need to pay as much attention to something that’s quite neglected, like Staph aureus, that’s affecting poor countries as well as rich countries.”

Need for coordinated action

Targeted efforts must be made to improve access to healthcare and antibiotics in order to reduce mortality due to bacterial pathogens, according to the report. 

However, it warned that while addressing access issues, it is crucial to also assess the risk of misuse of antibiotics. 

“Improving access to antibiotics requires a nuanced and location-specific response because ease of access must be weighed against the risk of antibiotic overuse (a problem compounded by the issue of self-medication in LMICs), which contributes to the increase in antimicrobial resistance.”

The study also advocates for higher uptake of vaccines that target the most common pathogens and vaccine development for bacteria for which no vaccine exists.

In July, the WHO released a report on the antibacterial vaccines in the pipeline, calling for higher investment into vaccine candidates that can tackle drug-resistant bacteria. 

Vaccines exist to tackle four of the priority pathogens identified by WHO, but there are no vaccine candidates in the pipeline against six of the priority pathogens in WHO’s list including those that cause common infections like urinary tract infections and gastro-intestinal illnesses.  

Image Credits: Photo by CDC on Unsplash, Photo by Myriam Zilles on Unsplash.

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