Warnings about the dangers of antibiotic-resistant "superbugs" are taking on new urgency with the release of a frightening new report from the British government. The report says higher rates of drug-resistant bacterial infections could result in 10 million deaths a year by 2050. The report puts the financial toll at a potential $100 trillion.
"That's a tremendous impact," CBS News medical contributor Dr. David Agus told "CBS This Morning." And the problem is not just hypothetical. "It's a real threat today. It's going to be a bigger threat," he said.
Superbugs such as Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, commonly called MRSA, are currently blamed for about 23,000 deaths a year in the United States.
Earlier this year, the World Health Organization warned that antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria have now spread worldwide and could lead to a "post-antibiotic era in which common infections and minor injuries...can once again kill." The WHO report called the problem "so serious that it threatens the achievements of modern medicine."
The risk has grown in recent years as the overuse of common antibiotics encouraged growth of drug-resistant strains. "Every time somebody has a fever, a doctor can give them an antibiotic. We have to stop that," Agus said. Antibiotics don't work against viral infections like a cold or the flu, but patients often ask for the drugs anyway, and too often doctors comply.
Some drug companies are investing in efforts to develop a new generation of antibiotics or other approaches to kill or disable bacteria, but much more research needs to be done.
Agus compared the superbug problem to Ebola in the way it's quickly racing out of control. "Unless we spend today, there's going to be problems tomorrow. We can't afford not to spend in this area. You look at Ebola. Ebola started off small and we didn't intervene and now it's an enormous problem. This is orders of magnitude bigger than Ebola could be," he warned.