Superbugs - bacteria that have evolved into forms immune from antibiotics - could kill more people than cancer by the year 2050, according to a new report.
The Review on Microbial Resistance study was initiated by United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron in July 2014. Results of the investigation were reported by economist Jim O'Neill.
Up to 10 million people a year could die from superbugs in 35 years' time if current prescription policies are not changed, the study warns. By comparison, approximately 8.2 million people die of cancer around the world each year. Researchers estimate costs to treat patients infected with antibiotic-resistant superbugs could reach $100 trillion.
Anti-microbial resistance (AMR) currently kills around 50,000 people each year in the United States, a number that could rise 10 times by the middle of the century.
Prescriptions for antibiotics given out without proper medical need and patients not finishing the entire course of the drugs are each leading to greater resistance in micro-organisms to the treatments.
Gonorrhea, traditionally treated with antibiotics, has now developed such a great resistance to the drugs that the medicines are no longer effective against infections.
Malaria, tuberculosis, and E. coli bacteria could cause the greatest numbers of deaths due to AMR by the year 2050, according to researchers.
Growing resistance to antibiotics by bacteria could cause great devastation in China and India, the world's two most-populous nations. Extensive health problems may also be experienced in Brazil and Russia. The growth of AMR could also contribute to a significant loss to the global economy - around two to three percent of the global domestic product (GDP).
"To put that in context, the annual GDP [gross domestic product] of the UK is about $3tn, so this would be the equivalent of around 35 years without the UK contribution to the global economy," Jim O'Neill said.
Economists participating in the study are urging nations to take measures to battle the growing problem of anti-microbial resistance. They believe that waiting to tackle the problem will make the problem worse, increasing costs over immediate action.
"If we fail to act, we are looking at an almost unthinkable scenario where antibiotics no longer work and we are cast back into the dark ages of medicine," David Cameron said.
Carapenems are a class of antibiotics of last resort used against E. coli infections. Physicians have been prescribing more of the drugs in recent years, and now a variety of the bacteria resistant to those drugs has evolved, leaving physicians with few ways to treat infections.
The full report is available on the AMR Review Web site.