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Superbugs could claim more lives than COVID-19 unless urgent action is taken to arrest their spread, infectious disease experts from Monash University have warned.

During World Antimicrobial Resistance Awareness Week (November 18-24), the researchers are calling for a register that systemically captures all patient-level data in order to shine the spotlight on the growing superbug emergency and elevate it into the public health agenda.

Without comprehensive action, the researchers say superbugs – bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites that are immune to antibiotics or other pharmaceuticals – will kill 22,000 Australians a year by 2040. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates 10 million people will die from antimicrobial resistant (AMR) infections by 2050.

Dr Nenad Macesic, from Monash’s Department of Infectious Diseases, Central Clinical School, believes superbug data currently recorded by the Antimicrobial Use and Resistant (AURA) surveillance system is too narrowly focused on pathogens and AMR in a laboratory setting.

A broader register, including clinical patient-level data, would help capture the true impact of AMR, he says, as many superbug infections currently go unrecorded and the cause of death in some cases can be erroneously attributed to a co-existent condition.

“The true death rate could be captured by ascertaining whether patients had an AMR infection at the time of death or shortly preceding it,” Dr Macesic says.

“This would likely identify a greater number of patients where AMR infection may have contributed to their death, including COVID-19 patients.

“A critically ill COVID-19 patient might develop an AMR infection in intensive care that is ultimately fatal, however their death may nevertheless be attributed to COVID-19.”

According to researchers, the solution to superbugs is two-fold – reducing the spread of AMR by limiting the use of antimicrobials in human and animal health and agriculture, and developing new antibiotics and novel therapies that can combat disease immune to conventional treatments.

Dr Macesic says AMR already affects some patients’ candidacy for medical procedures, such as bone marrow and organ transplants and says the risk will intensify without urgent intervention. But superbugs still lack sufficient public health funding and awareness.

Superbugs threaten to be the next great health crisis of our time, affecting not just hospitals but the community at large, but there has been no federal commitment for a National Implementation Plan on superbugs, nor funding for social and behavioural research.

“In many ways it is analogous to climate change, a gradual change that is almost imperceptible until we start running into very significant problems, with many patients having infections that are almost impossible to treat. We need to get the message out there that this threat is very real and requires immediate action.”

On Friday, however, the federal government said it has committed $22.5 million in this year’s Budget to address priorities identified in Australia’s National Antimicrobial Resistance Strategy – 2020 & Beyond. This would include supporting the development of a Multi-Drug Resistant Organism (MRO) outbreak response capability with health authorities in states and territories.

The government investment will also develop a National AMR One Health Research and Development Agenda to identify gaps and priority areas for research on the prevention, detection and containment of AMR across all areas of research.