Infections from some antibiotic-resistant pathogens known as superbugs have more than doubled in health care facilities in Europe, an EU agency said on Thursday, providing further evidence of the wider impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control report said reported cases of two highly drug-resistant pathogens increased in 2020, the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, then sharply jumped in 2021.
The surge stemmed from outbreaks in intensive care units of hospitals and in European Union countries where antimicrobial-resistant infections were already widespread, ECDC official Dominique Monnet told a news conference.
Data showed that in Europe last year, reported cases of the Acinetobacter bacteria group more than doubled compared with pre-pandemic annual numbers. Cases of another bacteria, Klebsiella pneumoniae, which is resistant to last-resort antibiotics, jumped by 31% in 2020 and by 20% in 2021.
The report did not include data on how many people died from the infections in 2020 and 2021. Experts say it can be challenging to definitively attribute the cause of death when patients were hospitalised for COVID-19, for example.
Some scientists link the rise in hospital-acquired superbug infections during the pandemic to wider antibiotic prescriptions to treat COVID-19 and other bacterial infections during long hospital stays.
Monnet said that was “the most plausible hypothesis”, but his agency had yet to conduct thorough analysis.
He also said the data showed decreases in cases of some other common superbugs in European hospitals. The ECDC believes that is because the COVID crisis led operations to be postponed.
The European report is consistent with a trend noted last year in the United States, where government data showed that U.S. deaths from drug-resistant infections jumped 15% in 2020.
Drug-resistance evolves through the misuse or overuse of antibiotics.
Concerns about it are not new. Experts call superbug infections, including fungal pathogens, a silent pandemic that causes more than a million deaths annually but does not draw attendant focus or funding for research.