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Antibiotic resistance in children is becoming a bigger problem around the world

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Each year, millions of people around the world die from drug-resistant infections as more bacteria gain the ability to fight the antibiotics we use against them. NPR's Regina Barber reports that the spread of so-called superbugs is leaving many children and babies especially vulnerable.

REGINA BARBER, BYLINE: Ramanan Laxminarayan is a senior research scholar at Princeton University, and he has studied antimicrobial resistance for almost three decades. He says that in the last decade, the problem has sped way up. Over half a million infants die from bacterial infections globally each year. And, in fact...

RAMANAN LAXMINARAYAN: This is one of the most important threats for newborn survival and the only one that is growing.

BARBER: A study published in The Lancet Regional Health - Southeast Asia last week analyzed 86 papers that examined antibiotic resistance in 11 different countries. What they found was that there was extremely high rates of drug-resistant infections in newborns. Dr. Phoebe Williams at the University of Sydney School of Medicine led the study. She says that babies and children don't have the same immune defenses as adults, which means they are more susceptible to potentially deadly infections, like sepsis and meningitis.

PHOEBE WILLIAMS: So children and babies are one of the populations that's most at risk of bacterial infections, and therefore most at risk of antibiotic resistance as resistance emerges.

BARBER: And as the available drugs' effectiveness have gone down, deaths have started to go way up. Dr. Williams says that in the Philippines...

WILLIAMS: Their mortality rate in neonatal sepsis has gone from being about 20% 10 years ago - so 1 in 5 babies dying - to 75% in the last two years.

BARBER: And new treatments just aren't keeping up. In the last 20 years, there have been four new antibiotics for babies compared to 40 for adults. There's another problem in the Philippines - a shortage of health care workers. Dr. Williams says that many nurses leave the country to go work in Australia, creating a brain drain to higher-income countries. While working in the Philippines, Dr. Williams says she has seen one nurse taking care of up to 20 babies in one unit.

WILLIAMS: And so once a multi-drug-resistant bacteria gets into that unit, it spreads very quickly and can infect many, many of the babies.

BARBER: There is a much stronger class of antibiotics called carbapenems, but they're more expensive and they're not listed in the World Health Organization, or WHO's, antibiotic guidelines. Those guidelines were last updated back in 2013.

WILLIAMS: Most of those recommendations that are in guidelines, like those WHO ones, are very, very outdated.

BARBER: The good news is is that WHO is currently revising the guidelines, and the United Nations General Assembly is going to discuss antibiotic resistance next year. Even though Laxminarayan didn't work on this study, he wants people to know.

LAXMINARAYAN: What the study makes clear is that either we invest in new antibiotics and we do this really soon, or we take greater measures to protect newborns from infection. There is no third way. And we are failing on both these counts.

BARBER: But Dr. Williams hopes that this study will raise people's awareness on how these superbugs aren't just affecting people and babies in Southeast Asia.

WILLIAMS: Bugs don't respect borders, as we've seen with COVID-19. And so it's really something that we should all be worried about.

BARBER: It's not just a problem for lower-income countries, she says, but for the whole world. Regina Barber, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF HERMANOS GUTIERREZ'S "AMAR Y VIVIR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Regina G. Barber
Regina G. Barber is Short Wave's Scientist in Residence. She contributes original reporting on STEM and guest hosts the show.