U.S. deaths from antibiotic resistant 'superbugs' rose 15% in 2020

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FILE PHOTO: Amoxicillin penicillin antibiotics are seen in the pharmacy at a medical and dental health clinic in Los Angeles

By Manas Mishra

(Reuters) - U.S. deaths from bacteria resistant to antibiotics, also known as 'superbugs', jumped 15% in 2020 as the drugs were widely dispensed to treat COVID-19 and fight off bacterial infections during long hospitalizations, enabling the bugs to evolve, a U.S. government report said on Tuesday.

Hospital-acquired bacterial infections also rose more than 15% in 2020 from 2019, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said.

The CDC said that more than 29,400 people died from antimicrobial-resistant infections during the first year of the pandemic and that of those, nearly 40% had acquired the infection in hospital.

Drug resistance occurs with the overuse of antibiotics and other antimicrobials, which allow some bacteria to evolve into "superbugs" that are not affected by the medicines.

There has long been an acute need for new antibiotics to combat these resistant bacteria, but there is little incentive among drugmakers as antibiotics are not especially profitable and overuse must be discouraged, keeping sales down.

Almost 80% of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 received an antibiotic - even though they are not useful for viral infections - because of the difficulty in distinguishing COVID-19 from pneumonia when patients first arrived at the hospital, the CDC said.

Between 2012 and 2017, deaths due to antimicrobial resistance fell 18% overall, according to a 2019 CDC report, the last year comprehensive healthcare and community data were available.

"Historic gains made on antibiotic stewardship were reversed as antibiotics were often the first option," said CDC director Rochelle Walensky in the report.

The World Health Organization (WHO) separately on Tuesday released a report identifying 61 vaccine candidates it said should be developed to prevent disease and help control the bacterial infections and antibiotic overuse that leads to antimicrobial resistance.

The WHO said that 1.27 million deaths are due to antimicrobial resistance each year.

The CDC report said antibiotic prescriptions can be appropriate when risks for bacterial or fungal infections are unknown, but that it puts patients at risk for side effects and creates a pathway for resistance to develop.

(Reporting by Manas Mishra in Bengaluru; Editing by Caroline Humer and Bill Berkrot)

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