Superbugs on Air Pollution Might be A Growing Concern

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Recent research published by NPR has unveiled a concerning connection between superbugs and air pollution. Superbugs, which are bacteria resistant to antimicrobial drugs, have been a growing global health concern. In 2019 alone, 1.27 million people succumbed to infections that were resistant to these drugs. The United Nations has projected that this number could soar to 10 million by 2050. 

A groundbreaking study has now revealed that air pollution might be a significant vector for the spread of antimicrobial resistance (AMR). Fine particulate matter, commonly referred to as PM2.5, is known to contain a mix of microorganisms. It has been speculated for some time that this particulate air pollution could be a vehicle for transporting antimicrobial-resistant bacteria, which find their way into the environment through various sources like farming, aquaculture, wastewater treatment, and hospitals. 

The research, a collaborative effort between Zhejiang University in China and the University of Cambridge in the UK, aimed to determine the role of air pollution in the escalating global AMR issue. Their findings indicated a strong correlation between particulate air pollution in specific countries and clinical antibiotic resistance reports.

The data, spanning from 2000 to 2018, suggests that air pollution might account for approximately 12% of the rise in AMR during this period. This translates to 480,000 premature deaths and an economic burden of $395 billion in 2018. The mechanism by which AMR spreads is when a course of medication, like antibiotics, eradicates susceptible bacteria, leaving behind the resistant ones.

These resilient bacteria then multiply and spread. Overuse of antibiotics in healthcare, animal farming, and aquaculture has resulted in a significant amount of these bacteria being present in soil, waterways, and sewage treatment facilities. These bacteria, along with genetic material that carries resistance genes, can be transported through the air when they attach to particles and aerosols, which people can then inhale. 

While the study has provided invaluable insights, it does not conclusively establish a cause-and-effect relationship between air pollution and AMR. Elena Buelow, a researcher at the University of Grenoble Alpes in France, emphasizes the need for caution in drawing conclusions. She points out that while there has been a rise in AMR and pollution over the past two decades, other factors, such as population growth, have also seen an increase. 

Nevertheless, the research suggests that reducing air pollution could be a viable strategy to control the spread of AMR. Meeting the World Health Organization’s target air pollution levels by 2050 could potentially reduce global antibiotic resistance by 16.8% and prevent nearly one in four premature deaths due to AMR. 

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