Drug-Resistant Superbugs: 4th Leading Cause of Death in U.S.

Over the summer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its National Vital Statistics System to reflect the leading causes of deaths in the U.S., as of 2017. The top three listed are as follows:

  1. Heart disease: 647,457
  2. Cancer: 599,108
  3. Accidents (unintentional injuries): 169,936.

If the CDC list had a separate category (which it doesn't) for deaths caused by superbugs, AKA antibiotic-resistant bacteria, it could rank fourth, just behind accidents. That’s according to a Washington University study released late last year which estimated superbugs are responsible for as many as 162,000 deaths annually—more than twice as many deaths each year as occur from opioid and other drug overdoses.

Beef feedlot cattle

Back in 2013, the CDC did offer its own estimate of there being only 23,000 deaths per year due to superbug infections; at the time, however, the agency acknowledged its figure was very conservative. Moreover, the CDC hasn't updated those estimates in six and a half years, despite the fast-moving epidemic in antibiotic resistance. (By the end of 2019, CDC staff tell us they will finally do so.) 

In hindsight, the 2013 tally appears to be almost ridiculously low. So perhaps it’s not surprising that the Infectious Diseases Society of America, which represents physicians who specialize in infectious diseases, recently decided to move away from relying on CDC’s estimates, and instead uses the figure published by Washington University’s researchers. 

Whether superbug deaths are 23,000 or seven times that number, one thing should be clear. To keep those numbers from growing, we must stop squandering these lifesaving drugs when they aren’t needed. At the most basic level, overusing them is what drives bacteria to become resistant to these precious medicines. As a result, the antibiotics we have relied on for decades increasingly are failing to treat even common illnesses.

Perhaps the most egregious waste of these drugs is on livestock that are not sick. The U.S. pork and beef industries are prime culprits. They remain two of the largest sources of unnecessary antibiotic use in the U.S.; more medically important antibiotics are sold for use in raising pigs and cattle than are sold for treating sick people (nearly 50% more, actually). These medicines are routinely and intensively fed to herds of pigs and cows—not to treat diagnosed illness, but ostensibly to ward off future problems that may be created by the crowded, often unsanitary, conditions under which those animals are being raised.

Of course a far better solution to these problems would be to raise livestock under healthier conditions, such as on cleaner farms, with less crowding and better nutrition. Indeed, Europe has successfully moved toward these non-antibiotic approaches to prevent illness in the first place, so as to avoid the unnecessary use of antibiotics.

As long as the U.S. meat industry continues to abuse these drugs, experts are warning antibiotics will increasingly fail us when we are sick. We urge these industries to do their part to reduce antibiotic use, and help to keep superbug infections from rising even higher up the list of the top causes of death.

About the Authors

David Wallinga, MD

Senior Health Advisor, Healthy People & Thriving Communities
Blog Post

Use of antibiotics on cattle and pigs in the U.S. that are not sick remains rampant. A fundamental problem in making headway against the overuse of these precious drugs is a crippling culture of secrecy in the livestock sector.

Blog Post

Chew on this, over your next holiday meal.

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